How Far from the Top are Manchester United?

A glittering era came to a rather abrupt end following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013, however Manchester United have recently regained the taste for trophies once again.

Success achieved over the last few years has been scoffed at by rival fans, though a return to the top of today’s game will remain the club’s main ambition for the forthcoming season.

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May 2013 – Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating the club’s twentieth league title with the younger members of his family.

Bowing out with a thirteenth Premier League title, England’s most successful manager handed the reigns over to his chosen successor David Moyes. An ageing squad that included Rio Ferdinand (34), Nemanja Vidic (31), Patrice Evra (32) and Ryan Giggs (39) – all of whom left the club at the end of the 2013/14 season – saw United slump to a 7th placed finish in the Premier League, the club’s worst campaign since the new format began in 1992. Despite the less-prestigious Community Shield victory at the start of his tenure, David Moyes will go down in Manchester United history for, mainly, all the wrong reasons.

2014/15 ended trophy-less for the Reds in Louis van Gaal’s introductory year in English football. With Champions League qualification obtained and an impressive record against the top sides domestically, many fans had high hopes for United the following season. It wasn’t to be as the Dutch boss and his players provided some of the most unattractive football Old Trafford had arguably seen since the early or pre-Ferguson era.

Regardless of how poor the league performances were, United had made it to their first FA Cup Final since 2007. Pardew’s Crystal Palace stood between the Manchester club and a piece of major silverware in a repeat of the 1990 Cup Final. An occasion that dragged into extra-time, Jesse Lingard’s thunderous strike was enough to send Louis van Gaal on his way with a winners’ medal around his neck – his sacking reported just hours after the final whistle.

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May 2016 – Juan Mata & Jesse Lingard pose with United’s first major honour of the post-Ferguson era after scoring the crucial goals at Wembley.

Jose Mourinho’s first year at the helm of one the biggest clubs in world football culminated with a Europa League final and an opportunity to secure Champions League action for 2017/18. The previous nine months had seen success under the Wembley arch in the Community Shield and the League Cup final, with United aiming for a third trophy to top off a somewhat disappointing campaign. Victory over Ajax Amsterdam in Stockholm completed a not-so-illustrious treble, however importantly set United up for exciting European nights once again at Old Trafford next season.

FUTURE COMPETITION

Most, if not all, United fans will tell you that they expect nothing but the best from Manchester United next season, although a significant improvement will be needed in comparison to 2016/17.

It’s seemingly forgotten that some good football was shown at Old Trafford during the earlier stages of last season, and I don’t mean from visiting sides – only Manchester City were good enough to win there across all competitions. It was nice to finally see some attacking intention after LVG’s drab tactics from previous campaigns, though poor displays within the finishing department and a lack of goals from those other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic led to numerous frustrating draws (10 in total in the Premier League alone).

New signing Romelu Lukaku has been considered as the solution to the striking problem at United, hence the £75M purchase from Koeman’s Everton. 25 goals last season (0.68 goals per game on average) would’ve earned the Belgian the Premier League Golden Boot award if not for Harry Kane’s seven goals in Spurs’ last two fixtures – impressive to say the least.

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April 2017 – Romelu Lukaku celebrates one of his two goals during Everton’s home clash with Leicester City.

Two preseason fixtures in the USA has allowed fans to catch a small glimpse of what Lukaku might offer in a United shirt. Tuesday morning (BST) saw the new No.9 bag his first goal under Jose Mourinho, despite having played for him at Chelsea before leaving permanently in 2014 after loan deals at West Bromwich Albion and Everton.

Manchester United are due to play another five fixtures before the UEFA Super Cup on August 8th, travelling across America and back to Europe to face Norwegian side Valerenga in Oslo and Sampdoria in Dublin.

Preseason arrangements will also benefit defensive newcomer Victor Lindelof after his £30M move from Benfica. The ‘Iceman’ is known for his composed nature on the ball – potentially the perfect partner to the aggressive Ivorian, Eric Bailly. After going down a hit during his first season in England, Bailly’s transfer looks to be a successful one and has caused many to entrust Mourinho with signings regarding the back line.

I suppose we’ll soon find out whether these two new signings prove themselves to be solid buys once Premier League football returns in just under a month.

“We need more… 50% of the job done”, said Mourinho in a recent press conference held in Los Angeles. An outright winger and a defensive midfielder are likely the two positions in need of re-strengthening this summer at Manchester United. Ivan Perisic and Nemanja Matic seem to have attracted the Portuguese boss’ attention according to recent reports, however both are now looking less likely for different reasons.

Inter’s stubborn approach to dealing with Ed Woodward may force Mourinho to look elsewhere for his addition to the wing, particularly after their interest and adamancy for an agreement involving an unnecessarily large fee and talented Frenchman, Anthony Martial. The supposed desire for Nemanja Matic, however, never felt entirely convincing from a fan’s perspective – even more so now since it’s looking increasingly probable that the Serbian is on his way to Juventus.

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Ivan Perisic is seemingly becoming more and more unsettled at Inter Milan following reported interest from Manchester United.

With five departures at this current time – including Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the squad will require more depth in order to compete on all fronts next season.

During the absence of European football following a 10th placed finish in 2016, a side made up of 24 players last season was enough to see Antonio Conte’s Chelsea stroll towards the Premier League title. The year before, underdogs Leicester City achieved a similar feat whilst, last season, proving that the inclusion of another tournament can seriously impede the side’s efforts domestically.

Manchester City were the last English team to reach the Champions League semi-finals back in 2015/16 – narrowly securing a top four finish in the league that season ahead of Van Gaal’s United. This of course suggests that, in recent years, Premier League sides are struggling to juggle both domestic and European ambitions. Manchester United were the last side to achieve a Premier League and Champions League double now nine years ago.

2011 saw United secure a monumental nineteenth league title whilst reaching the European Cup final for a third time in four years. This is probably the last instance of an English side performing in both and, unfortunately, I don’t see this changing for at least a few more years.

Spain’s dominance on the continental stage doesn’t look to be holding up any time soon, especially considering the youth and talent within the ranks at Real Madrid. Juventus have come close on two occasions to challenging the current Spanish norm but I feel their resistance next season will fade when considering the departures from Turin. Nevertheless, they may surprise again and so might the English sides seeing as five Premier League competitors will be involved next season for the first time in the tournament’s history.

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June 2017 – Real Madrid celebrate their third Champions League Final win in four years, defeating Juventus by four-goals-to-one in Cardiff.

More specifically then, are Manchester United capable of challenging on all fronts domestically next season? With effective recruitment and improving the ability to finish chances, there’s no reason to count them out just yet. Mourinho’s experience could prove vital when looking to win the big games – something United struggled to do last season thanks to limited ideas on an attacking front. As we all know, this forced the Reds to take a more negative approach against sides like Liverpool and Arsenal whilst Chelsea destroyed defensive plans early on following a quick-fire start at Stamford Bridge.

Additionally, avoiding a ravaged squad like the one we saw towards the end of last season will most definitely be key as well. With some potentially key players out until December or even later, it’s easy to see why some United fans consider the transfer business so far this summer to be substandard regarding the re-strengthening process of the squad – “we’ve just replaced those we’ve lost to injury during last season’s run-in and not improved at all“.

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Victor Lindelof will be looking to emulate Eric Bailly’s first season at Manchester United when the two pair up to form a crucial part of Mourinho’s back line. 

As mentioned before, adding depth to the current 28-man squad (disregarding any breakthrough players that may come from the academy) will be essential if the Reds want to challenge for each trophy they’re involved in next season. The treble-winning squad of 1998/99 consisted of 31 players, 29 of which making at least one appearance along the course of the 63-fixture campaign. Granted, not a huge difference in terms of numbers between then and now but I feel we’re significantly weaker in certain areas of the pitch, particularly the midfield.

Of course I’m not expecting the ‘real treble‘ to be United’s objective for 2017/18, though a strong start when the Premier League kicks-off on opening weekend (August 13th – Manchester United vs West Ham United) will only provide confidence and belief during the early stages of the new season.

What might also prove to be a pivotal role in the title race – if United are to be involved – will be when and where clashes with the other ‘big five’ take place. Last year saw Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur away all within the midst of, what turned out to be, an unimportant climax to the domestic season. Next season’s fixture list, however, is possibly a bit kinder to Mourinho’s men as away trips to Spurs (January) and City (April) are the only two that split up a run of home fixtures with Chelsea (February), Liverpool (March) and Arsenal (May) – the reversed fixtures currently pencilled in to be held before the turn of the year.

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Manchester United’s penultimate home fixture could be a big one as Arsenal travel to Old Trafford in May 2018.

I’m personally very excited for the new campaign to begin as I feel Manchester United aren’t as far away from the Premier League title as many rival fans taunt us for being. With room for improvement remaining apparent, I believe the pairing of summer additions and a somewhat favourable run-in could just guide United to Number 21 – or at least I hope.

Wayne Rooney: My Idol & Manchester United Great

From an explosive teenager to Manchester United’s all-time leading goalscorer. With everything to be won achieved, it’s safe to say that Wayne Rooney has earned the right to have his career described as legendary. 

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As someone born in 1998, my earliest memories of Wayne Rooney stretch back to Euro 2004 – the tournament his incredible talent was soon recognised by onlookers around the world. Four goals for the Three Lions gave England fans hope as the nation’s ‘Golden Generation’ started to properly shape up.

A metatarsal injury 27 minutes into the quarter-final clash with Portugal saw the 18-year-old limp off before our fate was, once again, decided by the dreaded penalty shootout.

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What followed left Wayne with a major decision to make in regards to his career’s future. Summer 2004 saw Sir Alex Ferguson and eight-time Premiership champions Manchester United come knocking on the Goodison door. Rooney had been at his beloved Everton since 1996, however £25M was enough to lure the promising youngster away from his hometown to Old Trafford – the highest fee ever paid at the time for a player under twenty. 

United’s new No.8 had an instant impact on 5-year-old me from the day he first signed. Not even a month later, he was banging in a famous hat-trick against Fenerbahce in Europe’s most prestigious club tournament – it had dawned that it was him I wanted to be like.

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Shirts with his name and number printed on the back – England or United, I had to have it – several pairs of Nike Total 90 boots and trying to style my own football performance on what I was watching him do week in, week out. I did everything I could to be as much like Wayne Rooney as possible growing up, even demanding I have the No.10 shirt whilst playing for my local youth team on Saturday mornings just because he wears it.

I remember I was in Paris one time with my mum, her mum and my younger sister. I must’ve been around six or seven at the time as we found ourselves at Charles de Gaulle airport during the mid-naughties after a short break away to visit DisneyLand. We were heading back to the UK when the Frenchman checking our tickets for the flight said that I “looked like Wayne Rooney’s son“. He wasn’t yet a father to any of his three children so the airport employee was obviously complimenting my appearance’s likeliness to the United player himself – anyone else described as Wazza’s son and they probably would’ve been offended. I’m sure it was the ears that did it.

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Everyone has tried at least once to recreate a goal they’ve seen on the TV. My first memory of doing this was at my granddad’s house in the back garden, attempting to smash a volley into the top corner just as Rooney had done against Newcastle weeks before. Whether I got close or not I can’t remember.

Another of my favourite moments during his time in a United shirt was the last-gasp winner against AC Milan in the first-leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2007. I was watching with my mum and dad in a London bar seeing as we were there for a two-day trip – my first experience of the English capital. An early Ronaldo goal and the score being at 2-2 during the closing stages is pretty much all I can remember from that clash with the Italians (I should clarify it was because of my age at the time, not because I was out on the slash). I’ve always remembered, however, a bloke telling me that Andrea Pirlo was going to convert a late free-kick around the United box – “this is the winner“, he said. He turned out to be completely wrong as it was the home side who eventually got the winner that night with Rooney smashing the ball passed Dida in the first minute of stoppage time. Hero.

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2009/10 is right up there with the great seasons I’ve experienced as a United fan, despite missing out on the title to Chelsea on goal-difference. It was probably so enjoyable as Rooney performed like an absolute machine, especially in the heading department.

Four goals against Hull City in the game at Old Trafford, three away to Portsmouth and countless headers all stick out to me when I look back and see the No.10 playing in that kit. A rapid, devastating counter-attack at the Emirates too, not to mention the celebrations after Michael Owen’s dramatic winner over Manchester City.

Rooney’s involvement during the knockout stages of the Champions League will always remind me of how I thought we might just make the final for a third straight season. Two headed efforts away at the San Siro plus another two goals in the return leg saw United stroll over what used to be a dominant Milan side. An early close-range volley fired United into a somewhat unexpected lead away to Bayern Munich just weeks later in the next round at the Allianz Arena; a pitch he’d only hop off late on following another ankle injury as the Germans snatched a crucial winner.

This injury and an early return from it signalled the end of his blistering performance throughout that year. United crashed out of the Champions League at Old Trafford, despite beating Bayern 3-2 on the night – I’ll never forget that Robben strike. I’ve always been convinced that that injury spoiled England’s chances at the World Cup, too.

Wayne Rooney ended the 09/10 season with 34 goals to his name at club level. How many more could he have scored? We’ll never know. Avoid that needless injury and United could’ve won their fourth Premier League title on the bounce.

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After years of glory and success in both domestic and European competitions, rumours were circulating that my favourite player was wanting to leave Old Trafford. What made it worse was that he was supposedly going to City – a club beginning to establish themselves as a strong side capable of challenging for trophies.

My 11-year-old self was convinced he was gone. Who would I idolise now?

Thankfully it was turned around and Wayne Rooney signed a new long-term contract with Manchester United. I had recently moved onto secondary education and on the way back one sunny afternoon, I first heard the news over the radio from the back of the minibus. There were two of us left to drop off: myself and a close mate of mine at the time. In a moment of pure excitement and relief, I had taken my polo shirt off and swung it above my head – weird, I know. That same evening I was playing football in the nearby field for hours, rekindling my love for a player I thought I was going to lose.

After a slow start to the campaign that same season, Rooney picked his game up from the turn of the year onwards. February 2011 saw one of the greatest goals ever witnessed at Old Trafford. Another United fan my age I was friendly with was lucky enough to have been there to see it live whereas I missed out on watching it unfold even on the telly. This was because I was out watching my mate’s dad referee a local football fixture. Unbelievable. I never used to enjoy the nerves before derbies or the other big games – particularly around those years – but I’ve always regretted not seeing that overhead kick hit the back of the net as it happened.

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Stellar performances in Europe saw us into our third Champions League final in four years – two of them just happened to be against arguably the greatest club side ever to grace the game. A goal at Wembley to equalise following Barcelona’s early breakthrough gave every United fan hope that night. It wouldn’t be enough, though, as the Spanish side eventually ran away 3-1 winners at the home of football. Nevertheless, Rooney had regained fans he had lost over the course of the transfer saga earlier on that season – unsurprising considering it was him who had secured the famous nineteenth league title at Ewood Park.

His goal encrusted 2011/12 campaign saw United miss out on the title in heartbreaking fashion. Back-to-back hat-tricks were achieved at the start of the season at the expense of Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers, becoming only the fourth player to do so in Premier League history (Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright and Didier Drogba being the previous three, with Harry Kane joining the list during 16/17).

2012/13 ended with the Premier League trophy coming back to Old Trafford for a thirteenth time. Rooney had supposedly wished to sit the final fixtures out after handing in a transfer request to leave the club. Despite the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the decision was once again u-turned and the 28-year-old signed a new five-and-a-half year deal worth £300K a week.

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2014 saw the arrival of Louis Van Gaal after David Moyes – ‘the Chosen One‘ – was sacked after a subpar reign at Manchester United that lasted just nine months. The Dutchman appointed Wayne Rooney as his new captain for the club just weeks before he was announced as the new captain for England. A youngster I had been watching for years was quickly becoming a senior member of each team he featured for.

Captaincy caused Rooney to become far more reserved; even more so than in recent seasons. The fiery teenager was now a distant memory.

He won’t go down as the most successful captain in Manchester United history, however he did get his hands on four trophies that finally included the FA Cup in May 2016.

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What happened around half-a-year later in January 2017 was an historic moment for both player and club. 94 minutes had gone at the Bet365 Stadium as Stoke City looked certain for three points against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. After coming on as a substitute, step forward the captain to fire a brilliant free-kick into the far corner for goal number 250. Sir Bobby Charlton’s longstanding records for both club and country had now been broken by Wayne Rooney.

With Europa League glory at the end of the season, Rooney’s trophy cabinet was brimming with almost everything – the only absentee I can think of being the UEFA Super Cup that he lost out on to Zenit St Petersburg in 2008.

Competition medals, personal accolades, records and a stacked collection of memorable moments. Previous actions force some to shun Wayne Rooney legendary status but, to me, his achievements and his impact on a personal level will always be enough for him to have that.

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After 13 unforgettable seasons at my supported club, his time has come to an inevitable end. Watching videos of times gone by – regardless of how tough it was to get through them without being devastated – reminded me as to why he has been my idol for so, so long.

It’s hard to see him in colours of another club but I’m glad it’s somewhere he wants to be and can shine once again.

Good luck at Everton, Wayne, and I’d like to thank you for everything!

Manchester United Season Review 2016/17

It’s been over a year since Jose Mourinho overtook Louis Van Gaal at the helm of one of the biggest football clubs in the world. Expectations were high and United fans across the globe were excited to see what the Special One could bring to Old Trafford. 

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SUMMER SIGNINGS

Silly season was back once again and, as always, seemingly everyone was linked with a move to the red half of Manchester.

Our new manager’s first bit of business saw Eric Bailly – a 22-year-old Ivorian central defender – arrive at United from Villarreal for a fee believed to be around £30M. Exciting and aggressive were words used to describe his previous performances, however many would have to wait and see what he could do in the more physical English Premier League considering he was somewhat unknown to those who aren’t avid watchers of European or international African football.

The first day of July then saw a Swedish giant re-united with his former boss. Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced in typical style that he’d be joining the Reds after his contract wasn’t extended at Paris Saint-Germain. At 34 years of age, it wasn’t surprising to see some doubt his current capabilities and whether he’d cope with the pace of the English game – we didn’t want a repeat of Radamel Falcao who signed on a season-long loan back in 2014, bagging just four goals.

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Five days later it was officially announced that Manchester United had secured Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund – Jose’s third signing of the summer transfer window. An Armenian midfielder who, throughout the 2015/16 season, was involved in 33 goals for the German side.

BACK TO BUSINESS

After a particularly disappointing pre-season that saw a largely anticipated fixture with Manchester City abandoned due to severe weather conditions in China, United walked out onto the Wembley pitch where Jesse Lingard fired the winner in the FA Cup Final just three months prior to the FA Community Shield.

It was our first outing in the Community Shield since David Moyes’ victory over Wigan Athletic in 2013, however, on this occasion, we weren’t arriving as the Champions of England. In fact, that honour was on the shoulders of Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City who were now without key man, N’Golo Kante.

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Jesse Lingard provided yet another moment of brilliance in front of the Wembley crowd as his solo effort broke the deadlock in sight of the travelling Foxes. Jamie Vardy equalised midway through the second-half as the game itself progressed towards a penalty shootout.

Step forward our new No.9, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A headed goal after climbing above a previously solid Wes Morgan helped United take the lead late on under the iconic arch.

Zlatan’s efforts proved to be the difference between the League and Cup winners of 2015/16, handing Jose Mourinho his first piece of silverware at his new club.

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#POGBACK

For years, Paul Pogba’s departure from Manchester United was considered as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest mistakes during his illustrious reign that came to an end in May 2013.

The obviously talented Frenchman impressed within the youth ranks after he was signed from Le Havre as a teenager eight years ago. His involvement amongst a promising crop of youngsters during their 2011 FA Youth Cup win suggested that he was on his way to becoming something rather special.

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Pogba, however, made his way to Turin after failing to reach regular first team football at Old Trafford – making just seven appearances under Ferguson before leaving in July 2012. The return of the previously-retired Paul Scholes was seen to be the last straw that eventually forced the move away to Juventus.

He developed into a young monster; improving his game in numerous aspects that caused for praise from many across the continent. Links were made that implied Paul Pogba was once on his way to Manchester City although, as they usually do, these rumours were later crushed.

Fast-forward to August 2016 and excitement had been building all summer following reliable sources counting on his return to Manchester United. The rumours were true and on the 9th August – just days before the start of the new Premier League season – ‘Pogback’ was unveiled.

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A record-breaking £89M transfer fee saw Juventus give up one of their prized possessions that was once courtesy of our greatest manager.

The press and rival fans immediately reverted to the ‘overpriced and overrated’ stance, despite previously raving about how good he turned out to be thanks to the Italian side.

It wasn’t until the 19th August, however, that he could show the Old Trafford crowd exactly what he could do on the pitch for the club he refers to as ‘his home’.

EARLY STAGES

Premier League action had finally returned and United couldn’t have got off to a better start. Three wins from the Reds’ first three games saw Mourinho challenging for the top spot before an early international break in September.

Victories over Bournemouth and Southampton saw why exactly the boss wanted Zlatan Ibrahimovic, bagging three goals in just his first two Premier League appearances. Marcus Rashford also carried on from where he left off last season by snatching the three points with a stoppage time winner away to Mike Phelan’s Hull City.

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What followed the international break was a poor run of form. A disappointing loss to Pep Guardiola’s City failed to meet the expectation of United fans as the hype of the first Manchester Derby between the two managerial powerhouses ended in frustration for the Reds.

Two losses in just over a week forced United down the table after a promising start in the league. A midweek away loss to Feyenoord, too, in our opening Europa League fixture allowed football fans to start questioning Jose Mourinho’s capabilities at this level following his disastrous 2015/16 campaign with Chelsea.

UNBEATEN RUN

After getting back on track with an EFL Cup win at Northampton Town and smashing Leicester City 4-1 at Old Trafford, draws with Stoke City at home and away to Liverpool left United lingering in 7th place after match-week eight.

Next up was a trip to Stamford Bridge where our new boss was returning to a place he’d secured three league titles for since 2005. The Portuguese’s comeback turned out to be the opposite to what many hoped it would be – a humiliating 4-0 defeat.

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What followed was a 21-game unbeaten streak that helped us qualify for the Europa League’s Round of 32 and a place in the EFL Cup Final at Wembley. Despite some impressively attacking displays against weaker opposition, draws were seeming to make themselves at home this season at the Theatre of Dreams.

Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool and Hull City all achieved single points on their travels to Manchester United between the 29th October 2016 and the 1st February 2017. Without these draws, it’s interesting and frustrating to see how far further up the table United could’ve found themselves over the busier period of the campaign.

WEMBLEY SUCCESS

After overcoming Hull City in the two-legged semi-final, Jose Mourinho found himself on the verge of a second piece of silverware during his first season at his new club. Claude Puel’s Southampton were the only obstacle after surprising victories over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side.

Saints had made just one competitive final appearance in their history before the 2016/17 EFL Cup Final – a shock 1976 FA Cup Final win over… Manchester United.

United went into the final with confidence after five straight wins across numerous competitions.

However, a nervy start was evident as Manolo Gabbiadini converted for Southampton after just eleven minutes, only for it to be called offside. Less than ten minutes later it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who broke the deadlock with a drilled free-kick from around 25-yards out. United’s lead was doubled by Jesse Lingard on 38 minutes – his third Wembley goal in under a year.

The final was far from over though as the underdogs clawed their way back through two goals from their newly found star striker, Monolo Gabbiadini – should he have had his hat-trick?

It was a poor performance from United’s perspective but it wouldn’t be the same if we always did it the easy way. Up steps the Swedish Hero yet again to fire the Reds to the EFL Cup in the 88th minute – our first since winning it back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.

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EUROPEAN FOCUS

With a top four finish in the Premier League slipping from United’s reach, it was time to prioritise the Europa League. Jose Mourinho stated in March that he’d much rather win a trophy whilst qualifying for next season’s Champions League as opposed to finishing third or fourth with no European glory, so it was clear where the boss’ intentions were heading.

Russian side FC Rostov were our opponents in the Round of 16 as we travelled to Eastern Europe for the first-leg before returning home the following Thursday. Unfamiliar conditions consequently caused for a poor game of football, despite United taking the lead away from home through Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

On the brink of the quarter-finals, many fans believed we’d have an easy route into the next round after securing an important away goal a week before. It wasn’t to be as Rostov kept the Reds out until the 70th minute; Juan Mata’s goal setting a cushion in place. That cushion eventually turned out to be unnecessary as United progressed 2-1 on aggregate.

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The draw was made and it was a pairing with Anderlecht that set us apart from the Europa League semi-finals.

An array of missed chances in Belgium could’ve cost us the tie as Mourinho’s men were punished late on by Leander Dendoncker’s headed equaliser.

Old Trafford played stage to the second-leg and, yet again, it was Henrikh Mkhitaryan who gave United the lead on the night – his fifth goal of the competition. Anderlecht fought back though as the tie ventured into extra-time.

Just over a year since he burst onto the footballing scene on the same European stage, it was time for Marcus Rashford to switch a run of form from bad to good. The young English striker’s composed finish fired United ahead for the third time over the two legs.

Mourinho had taken United to our first European semi-final since 2011, however it wasn’t all positive on the night as major injuries were sustained by two key players. Marcos Rojo – whose excellent defensive form had been one of the surprises of the season – and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both had their seasons cut short following severe knee ligament damage.

Rashford’s surge in form softened the blow of Zlatan’s long-term injury, picking up his performances exactly when we needed him to. His stunning free-kick away to Celta Vigo a crucial moment in United’s season as the Reds ran out 1-0 winners in the first-leg of the European semi-final in Spain.

A tense second-leg was made slightly more relaxing as Marouane Fellaini headed in the opener at Old Trafford – the Reds now led 2-0 on aggregate. Celta equalised towards the end to make for an excruciating climax, worsened after tempers flared and red cards were given out to Eric Bailly and Facundo Roncaglia.

Despite an incredible goal-scoring opportunity for John Guidetti (once of Manchester City) with the final kick of the game, it was United who held on and found themselves in their first European final since we faced Barcelona at Wembley six years ago.

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Ajax Amsterdam were now the only team that could stop us from playing Champions League football next season, with the final to be played in Stockholm on the 24th May.

RUN IN

A sensational atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams witnessed one of the performances of the season as Mourinho finally got one over Antonio Conte and his former club midway through April.

Goals from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera were enough to stun the champions-elect, however the Reds weren’t capable of maintaining momentum in the Premier League as failure to beat Manchester City in the derby and Swansea City at the end of the month dented any remaining hopes of a top four finish.

Rotation was now a talking point heading into the final fixtures of the domestic campaign, with Axel Tuanzebe a standout example for his excellent league debut away to Arsenal.

Losses to the North-London clubs held minimal significance but were still somewhat disappointing due to the high expectations set at the start of the season – from midseason it seemed we were always destined to finish in sixth place. That was a certainty even before a ball was kicked on the final day of the season.

Jose Mourinho had made it clear that he’d prefer to not play the remaining Premier League fixtures, nevertheless he decided to give the opportunity to the youngsters against an already-safe Crystal Palace.

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Running out comfortable 2-0 winners, the debutants definitely made a fantastic first impression amongst the match-going crowd as well as millions around the world. Joel Pereira, Demetri Mitchell, Tim Fosu-Mensah, Scott McTominay, Axel Tuanzebe and Josh Harrop were some of the youngsters making a name for themselves on the Premier League stage.

A late introduction also saw the exciting 16-year-old Angel Gomes replace Manchester United’s leading goalscorer, Wayne Rooney.

The future for the club looks bright.

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Attention turned to European football as, arguably, the biggest fixture in United’s recent history was upon us – Ajax vs Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final.

A talented, exciting, young Dutch side had won over many admirers over the course of their European campaign, however some questioned whether their inexperience would be exposed on the 24th May by the three-times European Cup/Champions League winners.

With the tragic events at the MEN Arena in Manchester taking place just two days before the final, the result was now even more important from a non-sporting point of view.

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A minute silence was beautifully observed by both sets of travelling fans prior to kick-off in the Swedish capital.

Then there was a final to be played and it was Paul Pogba who opened the scoring 18 minutes in with a deflected effort that looped over the helpless Andre Onana.

Pressure from the attack-minded Ajax was imminent and it seemed that they might equalise towards the end of the first-half following a number of chances in front of goal.

The second period began but it wasn’t Ajax who would score the second of the final. Instead, the ball fell to Henrikh Mkhitaryan who poked it home from close range – two summer signings proving to be the difference so far in Stockholm.

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Minutes went by and our young opponents failed to break down Mourinho’s tactics. Chances were missed by both teams but, in the end, it was Manchester United who would go on to be crowned champions of the 2016/17 Europa League.

Prioritisation had paid off and the Reds had finally secured automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League – crucial for attracting top talent throughout this summer’s transfer window.

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United celebrated completing the trophy set and the final piece of the jigsaw was dedicated to those affected by the Manchester attacks. Three trophies were under Red hands as Jose Mourinho’s first season went down an eventual success at Old Trafford.

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Despite finishing not even a week ago, I’m already excited to see what Manchester United can achieve next season.

Thank you for taking the time to read, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preview – Arsenal vs Manchester United

Sunday sees United continue their pursuit of a top four finish with a difficult trip to the Emirates.

Once a fixture between a pair of Premier League titans gunning for the title. A fierce rivalry between two of the country’s most successful and historic clubs – not to mention the added spice of managerial giants, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

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Sunday’s clash will be the 50th meeting between United and Arsenal in the Premier League era, with United edging the record with 22 wins (12 Arsenal wins, 15 draws).

It’s believed that Mourinho will select a weakened side with the priorities now firmly set on the Reds’ Europa League campaign following Thursday’s win at Celta Vigo. Matty Willock, Axel Tuanzebe and Scott McTominay are three youngsters expected to make their Premier League debuts this weekend.

With Manchester City winning comfortably on Saturday, it’s impossible for United to move out of fifth place this matchweek.

Despite just a five-point-gap (with Arsenal having a game in hand), this Sunday’s fixture is largely considered to be far more important for the Gunners considering United’s European involvement. Wenger is looking to maintain his impressively consistent record of finishing within the Premier League’s top four every year since he took over from Pat Rice in October 1996.

If both teams fail to achieve a top four finish, it’ll be the first time since the 1978/1979 Division One campaign.

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It’s widely considered that Arsene Wenger will no longer be at the helm of Arsenal Football Club next season – regardless of how the Gunners’ season concludes – consequently meaning that this will likely be the last time these two managerial counterparts will meet on the sidelines.

Manchester United go into the game whilst on an unbeaten run of 25 games in the Premier League – a new club record that was set following last weekend’s home draw with Swansea City.

The hype ahead of this fixture may not have been as intense as it once was, but what’s at stake for both sides could cause for an intriguing clash in North London. Kick-Off is at 16:00BST on Sunday 7th May.

Preview – Celta Vigo vs Manchester United

United travel to Estadio Municipal de Balaídos on Thursday evening where they’ll face fellow Europa League semi-finalists, Celta Vigo.

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It’ll be the first ever competitive meeting between the two sides and the first time the Reds have travelled to Spain for a European fixture since November 2013. Our last Spanish outing? A goalless draw with Real Sociedad in the group stages of David Moyes’ 2013/14 Champions League campaign.

Celta’s group stage culminated in similar fashion to United’s as both eventually progressed into the round-of-32 as runners-up. The knockout road to Thursday’s semi-final first-leg can be seen below:

RO32: Celta Vigo 0-1 Shakhtar Donetsk RO32: Man United 3-0 Saint-Etienne
RO32: Shakhtar Donetsk 0-2 Celta Vigo (1-2 Agg. AET) RO32: Saint-Etienne 0-1 Man United (0-4 Agg.)
RO16: Celta Vigo 2-1 Krasnodar RO16: FC Rostov 1-1 Man United
RO16: Krasnodar 0-2 Celta Vigo (1-4 Agg.) RO16: Man United 1-0 FC Rostov (2-1 Agg.)
QF: Celta Vigo 3-2 Genk QF: Anderlecht 1-1 Man United
QF: Genk 1-1 Celta Vigo (3-4 Agg.) QF: Man United 2-1 Anderlecht (3-2 Agg. AET)

United were hit with two major injury concerns in our last Europa League fixture as Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both suffered knee ligament damage against Anderlecht at Old Trafford. Eduardo Berizzo’s Celta on the other hand have been resting key players ahead of Thursday’s tie. The north-western Spanish side lie in 11th place in La Liga and have long since prioritised the European competition as their route into next season’s Champions League.

Jose Mourinho’s Wednesday session at the Aon Training Complex in Carrington saw the return of some familiar faces as Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly were all in attendance. Juan Mata also participated. As expected, Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both missed out alongside Luke Shaw who had picked up an ankle ligament injury against Swansea City on Sunday.

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The first semi-final of this season’s Europa League between Ajax and Olympique Lyonnais will be played a day earlier on Wednesday 3rd May.

Celta Vigo vs Manchester United kicks-off at 20:05BST on Thursday 4th May and will be broadcast in the United Kingdom on BT Sport 2. 

Match Report – Manchester United vs Swansea City

United’s final Premier League fixture of April ended in yet another home disappointment as Jose Mourinho’s men were denied victory by a struggling Swansea at Old Trafford.

The Reds took the lead at the end of the first-half through a returning Wayne Rooney’s converted penalty, following major controversy regarding Marcus Rashford’s efforts in order to earn the spot-kick just moments before.

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Going into the break with a narrow lead somewhat overshadowed a lacklustre opening 45 minutes of football. Sunday’s league fixture followed just 62 hours after a midweek derby with Manchester City and was our ninth outing in all competitions over the course of the month. The fatigue had evidently taken its toll on the players, particularly with Luke Shaw going off injured within the first eight minutes of the early kick-off.

In form centre-back Eric Bailly became the next Red to include himself on the seemingly ever-extending injury list midway through the second-half. The Ivorian’s departure meant that Mourinho now had eight key players out of action through injury, plus a suspended a Marouane Fellaini who will be out for the next two domestic fixtures against Arsenal and a high-flying Tottenham Hotspur.

More misery in front of a home crowd descended upon United as Swansea City and Icelandic star man, Gylfi Sigurdsson, picked out the top corner with a stunning free-kick late on some 25 yards out – his third goal at Old Trafford in as many years.

Despite some resurgence late on from the home side, it was Spanish forward Fernando Llorente who came the closest to snatching what would’ve been a crucial winner for Paul Clement’s relegation-battling Swans.

No more goals resulted in what was Old Trafford’s tenth league draw of the campaign so far, with Crystal Palace the only remaining visitor on the last day of the 2016/17 Premier League season on the 21st May.

Due to Hull City’s dramatic draw on Saturday away to Southampton it remains tight and all to play for at the bottom of the table, with Swansea City (18th) just two points behind Marco Silva’s tigers (17th).

In the race for the top four, however, there was little change over the course of the matchweek as Manchester City drew 2-2 away to Middlesbrough whilst Arsenal were beaten by, fierce rivals, Tottenham Hotspur by two goals to nil in what was the last ever North London Derby to be played at the current White Hart Lane. Third placed Liverpool could extend their lead over Manchester United to four points – albeit with one more game played – when they travel to Vicarage Road on Monday night where they’ll face thirteenth placed Watford.

Next up for United, an away trip to Celta Vigo in the semi-finals of this season’s Europa League.