Points Over Performance for United

If ever Manchester United were going to lose a match this would have been the week to do it.  With the fallout from the Allardyce sacking saga reverberating through the football world, even Manchester United’s troubles would have taken second place to an English football corruption scandal.  So of course, United didn’t.

It wasn’t a particularly convincing victory against Zorya Luhansk in Thursday’s Europa League group game at Old Trafford.  But it didn’t need to be.  United just needed to win to avoid the possibility of a humiliating group stage exit in a competition they patently don’t give a toss about.  Which they they did – unconvincingly.

But even unconvincing United victories don’t come without accompanying dramas of soap opera proportions.  After endless debate, Mourinho had finally left Wayne Rooney out of the team last Saturday and was seemingly vindicated when United went on to record a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the reigning champions Leicester (yep, still sounds weird).  The team started without Rooney once more agasint Zorya, but with the score still 0-0, Mourinho brought him on in the 67th minute.  You can probably guess the rest.  Within seconds he had helped United to take the lead – in rather bizarre circumstances.  Young right-back Timothy Fosu-Mensah made a run down the wing before cutting back to Rooney, who scuffed his volley straight into the ground at the very moment the Zorya goalkeeper Oleksii Shevchenko lost his footing and fell.  Rooney’s mis-hit bounced straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the left post, who held off the defender and headed the ball into the unguarded net.  One goal for United, one assist for Wayne Rooney, three points for United, more endless debating about Rooney.

After three defeats on the trot, United have now won three in a row.  Winning is a habit and sometimes it’s better to keep winning badly than lose playing well.  Obviously in an ideal world United would play amazingly and collect silverware at will.  But the glory, glory days of Fergie and his exuberant, fleet footed fledglings are long gone.  Also gone are the days when managers had time to bed in.  Mourinho needs to keep accumulating the points and hope that the performances start coming with the confidence of winning.

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United Turn A Corner Or Three

Correlation does not always imply causation.  Manchester United dropped Wayne Rooney for the visit of Premier League champions Leicester on Saturday and went on to thump them 4-1.  A clear case of cause and effect, or were Leicester simply terrible at defending for one awful 20 minute spell in the first half?  After all, this is the third time this season that Leicester have conceded four goals in a match.

The Rooney critics will rightly point to the increased fluidity, pace and movement in the team; the quicker interchange of passes; the increased space for Mata’s creativity to flourish; Pogba’s dominance in the first half, and Daley Blind’s deadly dead ball delivery.  Amazingly, three of United’s four goals came from corners.  United never score from corners, but then Rooney is the designated set piece taker.  In that respect, the belated change to Blind could not have come sooner!

However, perhaps even more significant was the decision to jettison the limited Marouane Fellaini and play Ander Herrera alongside Pogba in the deep lying Carrick role.  It freed Pogba to play much further forward, in a roaming role, that saw him hit a dipping 35 yard shot that was saved, contribute to Mata’s goal, score himself with a brilliant header, and play a delightful dink to Zlatan, whose swivelled volley over the bar would have been a top contender for goal of the season had it flown into the back of the net.  Of course, it’s the least United can expect for £89 million, but it was a timely reminder of why United forked out such a huge sum for the young Frenchman they offloaded for £88 million less four years ago.

One swallow does not a summer make though.  If correlation is to prove causation United will have to keep playing well without Rooney – or keep playing badly with him.  United play again on Thursday evening, at Old Trafford in the Europa League, and it is believed Rooney will start.  What happens if United play well and win?  How Jose Mourinho deals with solving the problem that is Wayne Rooney may well determine the success or failure of his tenure at Manchester United.

 

 

United Find Their Level

Cobblers.  No, not Manchester United’s current standard of football, though it really is that bad, but the first opponents they have been able to beat in four matches.  Northampton Town of League One.  That’s Division 3 in old school speak.  A win’s a win’s a win, though United should count themselves lucky they had the chance to face a helpfully lowly opponent to halt their miserable run of defeats.

Even then they couldn’t help nearly shooting themselves in the foot.  There has been a clarion call for Wayne Rooney to be dropped from the team.  He’s been condemned as a has-been – washed up, unfit and slower than a slug.  A third round in the EFL (aka League) Cup against a lower league team presented the ideal opportunity to show his detractors they were wrong.  Unfortunately, slicing a sitter wide from 5 yards early on only served to reinforce their criticisms.  He did subsequently get the ball into the net, only to be rightly flagged offside.  When things don’t go your way, they really don’t go your way.

Almost as loud has been the clamour for Michael Carrick to be reinstated in his deep lying midfield role.  Carrick is a strangely divisive figure in football.  Half think the United midfield doesn’t function without him; the others that he is the best midfielder in the world when he is given all the time and space in the world, but a calamitous liability when put under any kind of pressure.  Against the third division team he gave United impetus, drive and their opening goal.  An idiotic mistake by the Northampton keeper Adam Smith, who chose to pick up a back pass, lead to a free kick in the penalty area, which was blocked but ricocheted to Carrick, who smashed home to give United the lead.

At this point you might have expected United to stamp their authority on the match, but foot themselves shooting in the has been United’s forte recently, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the defence started getting themselves in a muddle because they had collectively forgotten to inform each other of their intention and kept going for the same ball.  It was inevitable that the comedy defending would lead to the equaliser.  When Daley Blind conceded a penalty after a clumsy foul on Sam Hopkins, the football headline writers must have been gleefully typing the funeral rites.

Thank goodness United have one genuinely world class outfield player in Marcus Rashford, who scares the pants off other teams because he has one frightening talent – pace.  It was his pass to Ander Herrera, who drove the ball into the corner from 20 yards, that put United ahead.  Seven minutes later, Herrera returned the favour when he hit a speculative punt upfield for Rashford to chase.  The ball should have been the keeper’s but with Rashford bearing down on him, the keeper completely misjudged the bounce, and in a millisecond, Rashford had the ball and was bearing down on the goal.  Finally, United had that winning feeling back again even if they needed a couple of gift horses from the Northampton goalkeeper.

That winning feeling might not last too long.  They face Premier League champions Leicester – yeah, still getting used to that one even after all these months – on Saturday.  And in case United have any idea that the League Cup might continue to offer a respite from their Premier League struggles, they have only gone and drawn Manchester City in the next round.  Yeah, it doesn’t rain, it pours.

A Sorry Sunday of Sport

One of the biggest disadvantages of being a multi sports fan is that sports inevitably clash.  However, on the plus side, by the law of averages someone somewhere should win and make yours truly a happy bunny.  Obviously the law of averages was out of sync today because everyone lost, apart from one favourite, who only won at the expense of another favourite.  Go figure.

Football:  It’s like being back in the 70s.  The Scousers look good and United are utter tripe.  Oh happy days now no one can accuse United fans of being glory hunters any more.  Oh happy days now away matches are all about the day out with your football mates.  Oh happy days to be able to drink to oblivion and not worry about being too blotto to remember that amazing performance, the goal glut, a goal scored from halfway line.  Oh happy days indeed…ugh.

Motor Racing:  If I was looking for sporting joy I wasn’t about to find it at the Singapore Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton was racing how I was feeling – meh.  The top 3 on the grid started Rosberg, Riccardo, Hamilton and the top 3 at the flag finished Rosberg, Riccardo, Hamilton.  In between, the race threatened to get interesting when Raikkonen passed Hamilton halfway through the race, triggering a three stop Mercedes strategy which allowed Hamilton to undercut Raikkonen and come out of the pit lane ahead of the Ferrari.  It inspired Red Bull to pit Riccardo and the Australian put on a late charge on fresh tyres to try and catch race leader Rosberg.  But it turned out to be much ado about nothing as Rosberg was able to hang on comfortably to the chequered flag despite suspected failing brakes.

Hamilton must be cursing the summer break for wrecking his momentum.  Before the hiatus, he had managed to turn round a 43 point deficit into a 19 point lead.  Since the resumption of racing, Rosberg has won every race unchallenged and has gone back into the lead for the driver’s title.  Hamilton, on the other hand, has gone into a funk.  The world champion needs to find his mojo again pronto because, right now, his season is veering a tad off course.

Tennis:  Overlapping with both the football and the motor racing was Britain’s Davis Cup semi final tie against Argentina.  There was never going to be any good sporting news to be found here.  Britain’s defence of the Davis Cup was over the moment Andy Murray lost his epic (does he play any other kind?) 5hr opening match against Juan Martin del Potro on Friday.  The rest was just detail.  Britain are a one man team.  It’s that simple.  If Andy wins both his singles, Britain win the tie.  If Andy loses one of his singles, Britain lose the tie.  Even though Argentina did everything they could to give Britain a chance by inexplicably allowing Del Potro to play in the doubles rather than saving him for the final singles rubber when they knew he was only fit enough to play one more match, Britain simply don’t have a second player good enough to take the gift.

It is notoriously difficult to come back from 0-2 down to win in the Davis Cup.  This year, only Croatia have achieved the feat, against the USA in the quarter finals back in July.  But that’s because Croatia have a number two in Borna Coric who can back his teammate up when the number one balls things up, as Marin Cilic did in their opening rubber.  From two sets up he lost the next three sets against Jack Sock to lose the match.  Coric also lost his tie to send Croatia 0-2 down.  Cilic commendably made up for his lapse by winning the doubles with Ivan Dodig and his reverse singles to level the tie at 2-2.  But it needed young pretender Coric to step up in the deciding rubber.  Fortunately for Croatia, Coric is a talented upcomer who, although ranked 54 in the world, comfortably defeated number 26 Jack Sock in four sets to propel Croatia into the semi finals.

Alas for GB, there is no one of Coric’s class in the British team.  Kyle Edmund, Britain’s own young upcomer, was more imposter than young pretender as he lost rather tamely in his tie against Guido Pella.  It was a very disappointing performance from someone who should be a competitive number two to Andy Murray.  Yes he is only 21, but then Coric is only 19.

It was entirely predictable that the Murray brothers would win the doubles on Saturday.  What was entirely unpredictable was seeing Del Potro at the other end.  It was a completely baffling decision considering his odds of beating the Murray brothers with partner Leo Mayer were minuscule to none, whilst his odds of beating Dan Evans, who was predicted to play the final rubber, were entirely on.  Argentina made a very risky call, but maybe they knew that Britain simply didn’t have a good enough number two.  Any one of the second string Argentinians could have won it for them.

The difference in class between Andy Murray and the rest was evident when, unlike Edmund, he had no trouble dispatching Guido Pella, despite being hampered by a thigh strain that required a medical time out early in the third set.  The only worry was whether the limping Murray would be able to play out the final few games.  Thankfully, the gulf in ability was too huge to threaten even a clearly injured Murray who won out in three easy sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

Argentina had been playing mind games with Britain by keeping them guessing about whether Delpo would be playing, although the Argentinian press were adamant that he would not.  Delpo had practiced briefly in the morning and was nowhere to be seen during Andy’s match.  But then neither was Leo Mayer.  And it was he who came out for the final rubber to face Dan Evans.  They say one of the worst things you can do to someone is give them hope.  Argentina had given Britain hope, and when Mayer came out way too hyped up with all guns blazing and spraying way too many balls out, Evans won the first set and the Argentinians must have wondered whether they really had shot themselves in the foot.

They hadn’t.  Any nascent hopes of an unlikely British victory were soon emphatically quashed as Mayer discovered his service rhythm and started serving bombs and thumping bone crunching forehands from the Del Potro school of bone crunching forehands.  Mayer has also suffered injuries from the Del Potro school of injuries, which has seen his ranking plummet to an unfortunate 114, but he was once number 21 in the world and he was playing like it.  Of course it helped that Dan Evans has no real weapons that could hurt his opponent, and his serve and general performance were wilting under the Argentinian’s relentless onslaught.  Del Potro was keeping a poker face on the support bench but he must have been feeling very relieved to see that Britain simply didn’t have a competitive second string.  Once Mayer had broken in the second set, the outcome of the match was never in doubt.

Ultimately, Argentina had deserved to win the tie, not only for Del Potro’s remarkable performance against Andy on Friday – Delpo is surely the de facto world number four – but also because they were able to play as a team.  The format of the Davis Cup enables a team with a big star player to win 3 matches and thus win his team the ties, but that is not really a fair reflection of the strength of the country.  Great Britain won the Davis Cup last year because Andy won all his matches in the quarters, semis and final.  Had Andy beaten Delpo, Britain would probably have retained the trophy.  But it is neither fair nor realistic to expect Andy to win everything, and in all honesty, this should be the last time Andy commits to the Davis Cup.  He turns 30 next year so his time at the top is short and there is still unfinished business with Grand Slams.  Let the others take on the Davis Cup burden that Andy has carried on his shoulders, by himself, for so long.  They need to try and step into Andy’s shoes even if those shoes may be far too big to fill.

Sometimes you can have too many favourites.  It leads to confusing emotions when they inevitably end up playing each other.  In the Davis Cup semis, I faced the nightmare scenario of having a favourite playing for each team!  Obviously Andy is the unequivocal number one, but I do have very soft spot for Delpo (who doesn’t?).  So it was a bittersweet moment when he defeated Andy as I couldn’t be completely gutted for Andy, but I couldn’t be completely happy for Delpo either!  Likewise, an even more ambiguous scenario was unfolding in the other semi final between Croatia and France, where closer favourites Marin Cilic and Richard Gasquet would be pitted against each other.  Both had won their opening rubbers, and then Marin had teamed up with Ivan Dodig once more to win the doubles.  Then came the dreaded first of the reverse singles, which could decide the outcome of the tie.  Marin vs Richard.  Whom did I want to win?  I couldn’t choose, but I had a sneaking suspicion about who I thought would win.  The tie was taking place in Croatia, Marin was on a roll and Richard had recently come back from a back injury, so I wasn’t sure that any supporting was required as I believed Marin would win.

The two semi finals were taking place simultaneously, and weirdly, the scores in both of the first rubbers mirrored each other.  Andy Murray won his first two sets 6-3, 6-2 and Marin Cilic won his first two sets 6-3, 6-2.  Marin then broke early, but then spoilt the symmetry by getting broken back.  Marin’s Achilles heel has always been his wobbly temperament under pressure and nervy tendency to lose matches he looks like he is cruising in, so these days I rarely consider any match of his over until he has won the final point (see this year’s Wimbledon quarter final against Roger Federer).  However, Richard has been equally biscuity (i.e. crumbling under pressure) of temperament himself in the past though he is tougher these days.  These days it is injuries that tend to scupper him, and it was no surprise that he couldn’t sustain his comeback.  Cilic has also been looking like the man ever since that aforementioned comeback against the USA post that humiliating defeat to Sock after being 2 sets up, and he was less likely to lose this match than Del Potro was to play in the final rubber.  Cilic won the third set 7-5 to send Croatia into the final.  After a sorry day when everyone else had lost (and Andy’s win counting for naught), finally someone I liked had won.  Well, it was one way of ensuring a win.  Have enough favourites and somebody you like is bound to win!

So it’s Delpo vs Marin in the Davis Cup final.  Who do I want to win?  The parallels between them are unnerving.  Both were born within a week of each other in 1988; both are 6ft 6 inches in height; both have one Grand Slam each, the US Open; both are trying to win their first Davis Cup, and I have a soft spot for both of them.  Of course, Delpo has the heart-rending fairy tale comeback narrative.  The crowd though will be with Cilic since the final will be played in, erm, Croatia.  Er, toss a coin?  I think I am going to go for the 6 ft 6 inch former US Open champion trying to win his first Davis Cup.

A Tall Task Ahead For Mourinho

If any United fans thought that getting Jose Mourinho would magically herald a return to the Fergie glory years, the last couple of games will have brought them down to earthy reality with a massive bump.  The derby defeat on Saturday could be shrugged off as an early season loss against a superior team with perhaps the best coach in the universe at the helm.  But there could no such excuse against Feynood in the Europa League tonight.  A 1-0 away defeat compounded by a lacklustre performance where United barely created any chances.  It was just like watching Louis Van Gaal’s team in the Europa League last season.  Bereft of ideas, bereft of drive, bereft of clear cut chances.

Some might point to the eight changes made to the team line up in mitigation.  A cynic may suggest that Mourinho isn’t too keen to progress in the second tier of European competition and considers it an unnecessary distraction and hassle having to travel to far flung, terrorist threatened and war torn locations.  They might be right.  It may work in United’s favour to exit the Europa League at the group stage.  It would leave them free to concentrate on what really matters – challenging for top spot in the Premier League.  Unfortunately, United’s problems look depressingly familiar – struggling to score goals at one end whilst conceding sloppy ones at the other end.  Right now, a more realistic target would appear to be simply finishing in the top four and getting into the Champions League.

The one Mourinho buy who did start was Paul Pogba, a player who is currently making Fergie look like a prescient genius in flogging him.  Pogba’s mediocre start on his return to his alma mater gives the impression that United’s biggest mistake was not in selling him but buying him back.  It is to be hoped Pogba will improve and show his worth as the season wears on, but for £89 million, United have a right to expect a player to hit the deck running.  Mourinho needs a midfield general in the mould of a Robson or Keane to take command of his team and drive them forward.  Right now the only place Pogba is driving is a cul-de-sac.

Of course, change takes time.  But what manager has time these days?  No manager, not even a United one will have the seven years that Fergie needed to win his first League title.  With Pep Guardiola’s City already looking like the classy, self-assured team to beat and Antonio Conte’s shrewd buys making Chelsea competitive again, Mourinho faces a tall task in returning United to the top of the perch they imperiously sat on for so long under Fergie.

Stanimal Blasts Novak Off The Court – Again

Stan Wawrinka’s got the Indian Sign on Novak Djokovic.  He must be the only tennis player who loves seeing Djokovic staring down at him on the other side of the net.  Novak is his lucky charm.  A year ago, he famously destroyed Novak’s dreams of winning a career Grand Slam in the French Open final.  The previous year, he had defeated Novak in an epic 5 set quarter-final duel on his way to winning his first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, at the grand old age of 28.  On Sunday, he did it again.  He beat Djokovic in four sets to become the oldest man to win the US Open since Ken Roswell in 1970.

Stan the Man is now 3 out of 3 in Grand Slam finals.  That is some hit rate.  Especially, for someone who didn’t start winning Slams till he was nearly 29.  Wawrinka plays with the urgency of someone who’s taken a very long time to meet his destiny and who knows his time at the top is short.  Roger Federer casts a long shadow and for years Stan struggled to blossom in his illustrious teammate’s wake.

Stan has done in two years what Andy Murray toiled to accomplish in nearly a decade of trying.  Stan Wawrinka is the antithesis of Andy Murray.  Where the Scot is cautious, the Swiss throws caution to the wind.  Where the Scot pats a shot back and hopes for an error, the Swiss smashes a shot for a winner.  Stan’s exceptional hit rate is a testament to his high risk high reward style of play.  And that backhand.  A gloriously old fashioned, rip roaring, single handed bullet down the line.  Not as elegant as Frenchman Richard Gasquet’s graceful offering perhaps, but far more powerful and effective – it knocks holes through opponents.

How Novak must have cursed Britain’s Dan Evans for not taking that match point against Wawrinka in their third round encounter.  Unusually, it was a forehand volley that had saved Stan that day.  How many times does it happen in sport where a team or individual are on the verge of going out and then promptly end up winning the whole thing?  The moment he came back to beat Dan Evans, Stan’s name was on the trophy.

From then on, he made his way comfortably to the final.  Even though he had played twice as much tennis as Djokovic, whose own path to the final was rather surreal, with one opponent pulling out and two others retiring with injury mid match during the early rounds, the doubts concerned Djokovic’s fitness.  Although Djokovic won the opening set of the final, there was a feeling Wawrinka was just warming up.  After all, Wawrinka had dropped the opening set in both their previous two Grand Slam encounters, as well as during his quarter final and semi final matches.  Stan didn’t do opening sets.  They were just a warm up for the main action to come.

Once he had stared unleashing his groundstrokes, the winners flowed.  As usual, Wawrinka didn’t hold back.  The single backhand down the line money shot was motoring, the equally powerful bone crunching forehand was pushing Novak out of court, and crucially, he was bamboozling Djokovic, the best returner of serve in the game, with body serves and kickers.  Stan’s tennis is not subtle; it’s not pretty or delicate.  It’s not tennis for the purists, it’s tennis for adrenaline junkies.  If Novak thought that the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium meant he was protected against the elements, he was mistaken.  Stan Wawrinka was a one man tornado blowing and battering Djokovic into submission.  Novak’s powers of retrieval are legendary, but the tennis equivalent of The Road Runner had no answer to the sheer force of Wawrinka’s groundstrokes.

By the beginning of the fourth set, Novak’s toes were black, blue, blistering and bleeding from slipsliding side to side in increasingly desperate attempts to chase down machine gun bullets from Stan.  In despair, he had to ask for two medical time outs.  Now the cynics might have questioned the timing – when he was precariously close to losing the match and just before Stan had to serve – but the red stain blotched on Novak’s socks and the blood oozing out of one of his right toes confirmed the physical brutality of the contest and exonerated him.  He was suffering and wilting under Stan’s relentlessly powerful onslaught.  Though he fought valiantly, by the end he could barely gain any elevation on his serve and his movement was all but curtailed.  It was all he could do to ask the question of Stan in making him serve it out for the title.

Stan has never been a consistent performer.  He is too mercurial, his tennis too high risk.  But he is renowned as a big match player.  He hangs tough when it matters most.  There was never a doubt that Stan would serve it out.  Just like the French Open final last year, Stan demolished Novak in four sets, winning 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.  He is one Wimbledon away from completing a career Grand Slam of all four titles, an astonishing record for someone who only won his first Grand Slam two and a half years ago as a 28 years old.

Ironically, Stan’s journey to Grand Slam success started at the US Open in 2013, when he defeated defending champion Andy Murray in the quarter finals on his way to a best ever Grand Slam appearance in the semi final.  His evolution from Roger Federer’s gentleman in waiting to king of the courts began in the same year with the appointment of Magnus Norman as his coach.  Norman had been the coach of the ill-fated Robin Soderling, who famously in 2009 became the first man to defeat Rafa Nadal at the French Open.  Sadly Soderling’s career came to a cruelly premature end due to illness.  His misfortune helped to change Wawrink’s life.  Norman transformed Stan from a maverick journeyman with a jaw dropping, sometime firing lethal weapon of a backhand into a powerhouse with equal groundstrokes on both sides and a vicious serve, and imbued him with a self-belief to go for his shots with fearless confidence.

No patsy percentage play for Stan.  Andy Murray should take note.  Winners win matches.  They don’t wait for their opponents to throw matches away.  For all of Murray’s consistency, he has struggled to win on the highest stage against the biggest names.  For all of Wawrinka’s inconsistency, his go-for-broke mentality has paid richly deserved dividends in the big finals against the biggest names.

The ‘Big Four’ may be no more but say hello to the ‘Big Three’ – Novak, Andy and Stan.  The three winners of the four Grand Slams this year.  Usually, the changing of the guard involves the next generation stepping up.  Instead, tennis has a golden oldie stepping out from the shadows and into the starlight.  In tennis, old is the new young.  31 is the new 21.  Stan the Man gives us all hope that it is never too late to be what you might have been.

 

 

Noisy Neighbours Kick Off With Derby Win

Pep 2 Jose 1.

Er, I mean United 1 City 2.

United are not a morning team.  We don’t do early kick offs.  United looked half asleep in the first 45 minutes like indolent teenagers who had been dragged out of bed to go to school.  That can be the only explanation for the lacklustre play and dozy defending that led to both City goals.  And then there was the obligatory dodgy refereeing denying United a penalty when Wayne Rooney was fouled by panicky debutant City keeper Claudio Bravo in the penalty area.  Anyway, it’s way too early in the season and United never come good till after Christmas.

There.  I have got that out of the way.

Back to reality.  City were simply better.

There.  I have got that out of the way too.

First to every ball.  Passing it with easy precision like Barcelona Mark II.  Fluid in movement, creative in imagination, obdurate in defence.  Welcome to Manchester, Pep.

Manchester City have struck it lucky.  The have nabbed the best coach in the world.  The rest of us can only watch with envy and try not to let the green eyed monster consume us.

Still, what a great match.  Thrilling end to end action.  Both teams going hell for leather for the win.  No fear football.  What a contrast from the turgid European Championships where cynical negativity from wimpy teams too scared of losing to venture out of their own half ruined the tournament as a spectacle.  Anyone wondering why the Premier League gets so much hype and why fans care more about their clubs than international football should watch this match.

Premier League 1 International Football 0.