Tag Archives: europa league

The Beat Goes On

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Having argued quite vociferously against the resumption of the Premier League, I’ll happily concede that it turned out to be quite watchable in the end. Winning helps of course. 11 rapid-fire games with United looking focused and determined for the most part. Despite being confined to watching on TV, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the last 6 weeks of football as much as anything in any period since Fergie retired. Not that that’s saying much.

The realisation hit me that watching football on telly shorn of the compulsion to attend in person (a growing trend in recent seasons, admittedly) is actually quite underrated. It’s an absolute doddle, this part-time supporter caper. There’s little stress involved, it doesn’t cost anything like as much as buying a ticket and you don’t have to mix with the ever increasing number of complete bellends who spoil the match day experience. Having spent nigh on 40 years looking down my nose at mere ‘fans’ and quietly revelling in my self-appointed top red status, it turns out the armchair lads are actually onto something.

I jest of course. Despite the novelty of watching United string a few wins together, it all had a hollow ring to it. We watched 6 weeks of walking-pace, contractual obligations being played out with piped in crowd noise to provide the illusion of authenticity. It was a bit like watching the longest post-season tour in history… or a particularly unmemorable World Cup where everyone knew who won before the draw was made. It was entertaining to a point and provided some relief after weeks of below-par crime dramas and basketball documentaries on Netflix, but let’s not pretend it was football. Not proper football, anyway.

The post-apocalyptic, Bizarro World version of the Premier League briefly afforded us the chance to make history. At one point it looked like we might be in with a shout of lifting the inaugural Covid League title awarded to the the team with the best record post-lockdown. Unfortunately we had to settle for 2nd place as dropped points meant City picked up the germ plated, commemorative trophy. This made it a Coronavirus double for the blues, still buoyant after their extra-time victory in the CAS Cup.

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Despite paling in significance with the real thing, there was still plenty to digest. For the first time in a long time, a United manger successfully figured out his strongest line up and boy, did he decide to rinse it. As we limped over the finish line at Leicester the team was basically running on fumes. The only big disappointment came at Wembley where Ole justifiability gambled on resting a few players. That didn’t work out at all as the performance showed. We’re still in need of further reinforcements clearly, but that single setback shouldn’t detract from the progress made since January.

The main reason for the improvement is Bruno Fernandes. Not only has he arrived and made an excellent contribution himself, his enthusiasm appears to have had a positive effect on everyone else around him. The attitude of many of the squad has been questionable, both collectively and individually for a number of years. Fernandes comes in and it’s like they’re trying their best to impress the new kid in school who everyone agrees is cool. Shaw is moving up and down the touch line faster, Matic looks halfway mobile and perhaps most shocking of all, Pogba has declared himself match fit.

In the final game at Leicester, Bruno looked absolutely shattered after 10 minutes. He still didn’t stop all afternoon despite the feet no longer doing what the brain was telling them to do. Having a player like that in the team, a proper natural leader actively looking to take responsibility rather than shirk it is absolutely priceless. His head doesn’t drop and he leads by example, every single game. He might not be THE captain, but he’s A captain. Successful football teams tend to have 4 or 5 players demonstrating these qualities.

Despite quickly becoming the star turn, it’s not been all Bruno. Ole deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s used Mason Greenwood this season, integrating him slowly into the set up and knowing precisely the right moment to unleash him as a first choice starter. Greenwood himself is something else. 17 goals for an 18 year old, 3rd choice striker is a ridiculous return in his first season. It’s not just the goal return though. As he’s shown already, he’s a very capable all-round footballer.

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The decision to shift Lukaku in order to give this kid more game time doesn’t seem so controversial 12 months on. Unlike the human water buffalo, Greenwood is great with the ball at his feet and supremely comfortable in possession. He knows when to do the simple things and when to attempt the extraordinary. There’s no need to blow any more smoke up his arse right now because we all know how talented he is. It’s hard not to get excited about how good he could be in a few years if he continues to develop as he has throughout this season.

Coming up next we’ve got more televised summer football in the form of the Europa League’s conclusion being played over in Germany. It’ll be a bittersweet feeling should United progress to the final (not a foregone conclusion by any means) as European finals are those occasions where you feel compelled to be there. I’ll be made up for Ole if he wins his first trophy as a manager but it won’t be the same without 40,000 reds ballooning round Cologne to mark the occasion. I suspect town could be interesting that night though.

In the same way that Liverpool’s title win became inevitable months ago, I’ve reached a similar conclusion about the prospect of City winning the European Cup later this month. It’s going to happen sooner or later so it may as well be this year. Liverpool are champions and Leeds have won promotion so I figure we take the hit and make it an annus horribilis hat-trick. They won’t be able to experience it properly and it’ll be the worst final in living memory regardless what happens. At least our blue brethren will be spared the usual scramble for excuses after they fail to sell out their allocation. Every cloud and all that.

Copyright Red News – August 2020

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Higher Ground

Greetings, fellow football enthusiasts! After a welcome summer off, August rolls round again and it’s time for another 10 months of ill-considered United opinion. All ready to go then? No, not really? Excellent, let’s do this.

Firstly, I’m going to start with a heartfelt apology to the UEFA Europa League, the much derided, slow-witted sibling of its Champions League big brother. I spent the vast majority of last season demonstrating zero enthusiasm for our participation due to being a time-served dickhead, before shamelessly diving onto the hype train just as the final approached. This was clearly a bit snide and I was proven very wrong indeed.

As anyone in attendance will testify, Stockholm was a Euro away classic that will live long in the memory. Not in terms of the game, that was a bit of a stinker in which we bored our way to victory, just in terms of the trip itself. Great people, great city, great result. Flying out of Manchester just hours after the atrocity committed at the Arena felt very odd indeed. Placed in the context of life-changing events like that, football is obviously meaningless. It did however present the opportunity for those present in Sweden to demonstrate solidarity in some small way, proving that life goes on and we won’t be intimidated from doing what we love.

Arriving home after zero sleep in 36 hours, I made the mistake of binge-watching a jumble of media reports from both the match and the aftermath of the bomb… and all of a sudden I was an emotional wreck; proud of the team for completing the set and immensely proud of the city for its immediate response to the attack. I know it’s only football, but you know what it’s like at European finals… you don’t win them very often and when you do it can all come flooding out. I dunno what to say in conclusion, just that winning the Europa unexpectedly proved quite a life-affirming moment. And clearly, that’s not a sentence I ever envisaged writing.

Anyway, onto current matters and how are we looking for the season ahead? The transfer window this summer has proven remarkable based on the sheer number of players we’d apparently agreed personal terms with. At some point in mid-June we were clocking one per day. Morata, Neymar, Perisic, Aurier, Rodriguez, Talisca, Fabinho… it was relentless. Ed Woodward must have been dual-wielding mobile phones like some kind of cocaine-deranged city trader to have had all them lined up.

Away from Fantasy Island, actual real-life completed business has been more steady with only Lukaku, Lindelof and Matic arriving thus far. Solid acquisitions there, nothing too ground breaking but there’s still plenty of time remaining for one or two more. Common sense suggests that prior to further additions, we’ll have to ship a couple out as only Rooney and Januzaj have departed up to now. As things stand it’ll be a surprise if Ashley Young is still here in September and Mourinho managed to break several thousand hearts by quashing rumours of Fellaini heading to Galatasary.

I’m close to giving up on this now. Quite how Fellaini continues to enjoy the confidence of successive United managers remains the great unsolvable puzzle of our times. It’s become a question that gives me sleepless nights. I watch closely, I look for clues, I’ve pored over all available evidence but I still don’t have a clue what he’s doing here. In times of weakness I’ve started to doubt my judgement, but I can’t get beyond what I consistently see with my own eyes. One day the penny might drop and I’ll be able to understand his appeal, but I remain utterly perplexed for now.

As much as Fellaini’s employment continues to baffle, Rooney’s departure wasn’t any surprise at all. As a staunch Rooney advocate over the years, it probably took me longer than most to admit the game was up. But Fergie (as always) had it right when he was trying to edge him out back in 2013, as the last 4 years have been grim viewing for the most part. It certainly won’t take Everton long to realise his performance level is more Stella than stellar these days. However, in years to come the Rooney I’ll recall won’t be the lumbering 2017 vintage, it’ll be the spud-faced nipper that was smashing it up week in-week out from 2004-2012. He leaves as one of United’s greatest ever signings and we should wish him well.

Being brutally honest though, I’m struggling to see how we’ve improved significantly on what we had last year. Lukaku will replace Zlatan, Matic will screen the defence a’la Carrick and Lindelof will probably take a few months to settle based on how nervy he’s looked pre-season. All in all, a serious title challenge appears beyond us unless there’s a spectacular improvement on how the team performed for most of last season.

However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some optimism. It’s highly unlikely that Chelsea will repeat their relentless form of last term, especially minus Costa. Liverpool and Arsenal are still as shit as ever and I think City’s decision to change their entire defence in one fell swoop is going to hurt them despite their plethora of attacking options. So if Lukaka scores goals, Pogba kicks on, United manage a serious upturn in home form… well you never know.

I can’t help suspecting that we’ve still got a big one incoming. We’re massively lacking a fancy dan, creative type so it’ll be a surprise if we start another season with (shudder) Young and Valencia as our only specialist wide players. I’ve got a theory in any case. As Neymar has gone to PSG, there’s no way that Madrid will be able to handle not making a splash this summer so they’ll push hard for Mbappe now. Meaning… hello Gareth Bale. It’s happening, people. Imagine the Instagram likes? #baleisared #allhailkingmonkey #pleasemakeitstop

Copyright Red News – August 2017

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19th Nervous Breakdown

image.pngDespite United suffering something of a decline in recent seasons, it’s reassuring to note that rather than merely being derided by our rivals, we’re now back on the receiving end of subtle and not quite so subtle digs once more. Performance-wise, we’re obviously not dining at the top table quite yet, but at least they’re now chucking regular snide bombs in our direction as opposed to simply sniggering at our misfortunes. Delightfully, we still possess the ability to upset the rest of the English football by merely existing and being bigger than everyone else.

There have been some absolute crackers this last few weeks. First we had Ronald “my dream is to one day coach Barca” Koeman warning Romelu Lukaku against moving to Old Trafford, mainly because we’re rubbish and he’ll never get to play in the Champions League here. Clearly it’s fine for Koeman to regularly move clubs in an attempt to further his career, but woe betide any of his players attempting to realise their ambitions on a greater stage.

Then you had Antonio Conte sagely noting, “it’s not always about who spends more money who wins”. And yes, that’s Antonio Conte manager of Chelsea, a club renowned throughout world football for their moderate outlay in the transfer market. I mean they only laid out a paltry £123M last summer, the frugal refusenik mentalists! It’s a minor miracle these plucky underdogs can even compete when you consider they’ve only spent £2 billion since Abramovich took over. First Leicester, now Chelsea… quietly showing the rest of the Premier League fortune spunkers that there is another way.

Next was Jurgen Klopp, who’s been throwing subs all season about United’s defensive-minded approach and willingness to play the long ball. According to the heavy metal maestro, it’s harder for defenders at Liverpool because they play counter attacking football and leave themselves more exposed. I’m not 100% certain, but presumably this is why (combined with the fact half their team is utter dross) they concede more goals and lose more games too.

Listen Jurgen, try winding it in and embrace the fact that both United and Liverpool are pretty crap at present. There’s no shame in admitting it, we just are. If you’re going to persist with instructing your team to hare round like lunatics for 90 minutes just because that was effective at Dortmund for 18 months, then accept they are going to mess up regularly and ultimately leave you disappointed. English players are generally thick and don’t respond well to complex tactical instructions. Ease off on the gegenpressing, get 10 men behind the ball and lump it up to the big feller up front. There’s really no need to come over all passive-aggressive and take your frustrations out on us.

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Now I’ve long-since abandoned the pretence of thinking I was knowledgable enough to make a profit betting on football, but I do know enough still to make the occasional solid prediction. On the afternoon of the Celta semi-final 2nd leg, a work colleague was keen to hear my opinion on how United would fare that evening. My response was something along the lines of, “we’ll get through, but prepare to watch the last 10 minutes through your fingers. It won’t be pretty”.

Okay, so maybe you didn’t need to be Nostradamus to see that coming but it still proved unerringly accurate. I can’t recall a last 10 months minutes like that since the similarly nervy Barca semi in 2008. That night however, United at least retained a semblance of composure as the minutes ticked by. By comparison, this current lot displayed all the poise of a 3 year old tasked with carrying of tray of drinks.

Despite the haphazard nature of our progress, victory in Stockholm will apply a coat of gloss to all that’s gone before and make it a very successful season. Fergie always claimed that the aim every year was to win a trophy, so a 2nd major prize in a couple of months with a squad that’s now down to its bare bones after 60+ games will be quite an achievement. Even though some of the recent performances have been no better than the insipid fayre served up under Van Gaal, at least United are starting to look like a team again. It’s certainly not pretty, but we can battle when required and complete capitulations are certainly less frequent.

So, mission accomplished… sort-of. The regular “Jose’s playing the way that United should” refrains might have quietened over the last few weeks but it’s all been quite entertaining in its own way. European finals certainly don’t happen every year and despite the Europa League being the Europa League, the long slog to the final now looks well worth it now we’re closing the season with a couple of days in Sweden to look forward to. Just make sure you brace yourself for watching the last 10 minutes through your fingers again.

Enjoy the summer and I’ll see you in August.

Copyright Red News – May 2017

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