Long Road Back To The Top For United

They had 37 attempts on goal, 72% possession, 19 corners, they hit the post, they hit the bar, but still Manchester United couldn’t break through the rock hard defence of Burnley at Old Trafford on Saturday.  It was a similar story to their last home match against Stoke a month ago, where for all their huffing and puffing they could only manage a 1-1 draw.  Two matches, 61 shots at goal, a grand total of one goal scored.  When your luck’s out, it’s out.  Just ask Lewis Hamilton.

No doubt the ABUs are wallowing gleefully in Schadenfreude at United’s latest misfortune.  Cue echoes of ‘I told you so’ at the appointment of Jose Mourinho after his latest attention grabbing antics saw him ignominiously sent to the stands for protesting too much at Darmian’s probably correctly denied penalty appeal in the first half.  No one is better at diverting attention away from the team than Mourinho, but whether that is a good thing, even when the team are struggling and could perhaps do with having attention diverted away from them, is debatable.  However, United are stuck with him for better, for worse.  Changing managers yet again would only serve to destabilise the club further.

It is not mercurial managers nor mediocre players who are the real problem.  History is against Manchester United.  The previous two teams to dominate English football before Fergie’s United both suffered a precipitous decline in their league fortunes in the aftermath.  Matt Busby’s Manchester United reigned supreme in the 50s and 60s, but after Busby’s retirement it would take United 26 years to win the league title again.  Likewise, Liverpool ruled the roost from the late 60s up to 1990, but they have not won the league title since.  26 years and counting.  A long period of league domination followed by an equally prolonged decline is the inevitable trajectory of the supremely successful team.  The pride and the fall.

So United’s current decline was inevitable.  The media may obsess and the opposition fans taunt, but United fans will need to be patient and take it all on the chin.  The glory days will be back, but the wheel of fortune may take a while to turn again.  Just so long as it doesn’t take 26 years…

United Show City How It’s Done

There aren’t too many things Manchester United are better at than their City rivals right now, but taking penalties seems to be one of them.  While City missed two penalties against Everton last Saturday, United showed them how should be done last night by scoring two penalties in their 4-1 Europa League win over Fenerbahce at Old Trafford.

United’s four goals also came the day after City conceded four goals – albeit in the Champions League to the mighty Barcelona and a wonderful hat-trick from irrepressible genius Messi – a reversal for United fans to enjoy, no matter how momentary.

After a nondescript opening half an hour, the game sparked to life when United were awarded two penalties in just three minutes after some clumsy defending from Fenerbahce.  Interestingly, United’s regular penalty taker, Wayne Rooney, allowed Paul Pogba to take the first and Anthony Martial the second.  It was a surprisingly magnanimous gesture from the beleaguered United skipper, who desperately needs goals, not only to silence his ever growing critics, but also because he is only three goals behind Bobby Charlton’s all time United goalscoring record.

Ironically, it was against Fenerbahce in the Champions League 12 years ago that a precocious 18 year old Rooney made a spectacular debut for United, scoring a dazzling hat trick that provided a thrilling glimpse of his gilded future.  If the present Rooney is a shadow of that effortless goal-scoring past self, he is still proving pivotal to United’s fortunes.  Perhaps he gave the penalties to Pogba and Martial to help them gain some much needed goal scoring confidence themselves.  Rooney’s generosity certainly paid off when Pogba scored a stunning third goal from 20 yards after a triangle of short passes involving Rooney and Jesse Lingard, who laid the ball off to Pogba.  An identical move involving the triumvirate at the start of the second half saw Pogba pass to Rooney on the edge of the box, who laid it off for Lingard this time.  His sweet strike gave United their fourth goal and three valuable points to take them second in the group.  The dancing goal celebrations between Pogba and Lingard – United’s most expensive buy and the one who cost them nothing –  were as memorable as the goals themselves.  Perhaps they were auditioning for an invite to Strictly Come Dancing!

It was a night for trips down memory lane.  The biggest cheer of the match was reserved for Fenerbahce’s late consolation goal, scored by United old boy Robin Van Persie.  It was a trademark tap in reminiscent of the good old days.  They don’t forget their own at Old Trafford.  It was thanks to Van Persie’s 30 goals that United won their last Premier League title back in 2013 in Fergie’s swansong year.  The United fans were loud and generous in their acclaim for their former hero.  What would they give for a 30 goals a season striker right now?

As it is, at least they get to enjoy a better week than City.  Which is saying something in a week that began with a dour 0-0 away trip to Anfield.  It will end with a kind of homecoming for Jose Mourinho, when United travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.  United fans will be hoping that’s another trip down memory lane which ends with a victory for their team.

Andy Murray Swings Closer To World No 1

Back in June, when Novak Djokovic was master of the universe, conquering all before him, including Andy Murray, there seemed more chance of Scotland winning the World Cup – or at least, qualifying for one – than Andy Murray getting anywhere near the world number one spot, so far ahead was Djokovic from the rest of the field.  Fast forward four months, and a successful Asian swing has left Murray a tantalisingly close 915 points behind Djokovic.  Who’d a thunk it?

After his fruitless exertions in the Davis Cup against Argentina last month, Murray appeared exhausted and injured, and in sore need of a good, long rest.  Yet Andy looked as fresh as a daisy as he won the Shanghai Masters on Sunday against tenacious Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut  7-6, 6-1, without dropping a set during the whole tournament.  This followed a win in the ATP 500 China Open last week, giving Murray a points haul of 1,500 in the space of two weeks to close the gap on Djokovic, who only played Shanghai and suffered a mini meltdown on his way out of the semi finals to Bautista Agut.

Now, Murray’s detractors will be itching to point out that he didn’t beat anyone of note, but, hey, you can only beat who is in front of you.  However, the one thing Andy deserves immense credit for is his ‘bouncebackability’.  I must confess, after that French Open defeat to Djokovic, following on from losing to him in yet another Australian Open final, I did wonder whether Andy had hit the buffers and would ever win another Grand Slam again.  Then, barely a month later, with the inscrutable Ivan Lendl safely tucked back in his corner, wham, he was the Wimbledon champion.  And then, Olympic champion.  With Novak hurtling alarmingly to base after reaching his personal summit at Roland Garros, Andy seemed to be in the ascendancy.  Under Lendl’s positive influence he looked a different beast: more controlled, more positive, less irritable.  A newer Andy.  The US Open was his for the taking.

Only he couldn’t take it.  Against Nishikori in the quarter finals, the old demons came raging back, derailing him at a crucial time.  To rub salt in the wound, Stan Wawrinka won the US Open, his third Grand Slam out of three, illustrating his big match mentality.  For all of Andy’s consistency over the years and junior membership of the ‘Big Four’, Stan again had the same number of Grand Slams as him.  That brutal US Open loss in five frustrating sets, which Andy really ought to have won, was followed by an even more gruelling defeat against Del Potro in the Davis Cup, with Andy regressing once more to his trademark passive and grumbling self.  It looked like New Andy would be just a fleeting summer phenomenon.

But once again, after a bit of rest and recuperation, he has come bouncing back.  He has an ATP 500 in Vienna next week, followed by the final Masters of the season in Paris, plus the World Tour Finals in London, to do what has gone from being impossible to unlikely to maybe.  Of course, Andy being Andy, nothing is ever straightforward.  The pendulum keeps swinging, but Andy keeps going.  Perhaps soon, to the very top.

Ryder Cup Day 3: Americans Triumph At Long Last To Lay The Ghost Of Medinah To Rest

There was no Miracle in Minnesota for the Europeans.  It was more Humdrum at Hazeltine as the Americans won the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008.  It was a long awaited and well deserved victory, even if their fans let the side down at times with their boorish behaviour.  We will have to put it down to their desperation to win back the famous old trophy.  The victory was also redemption for American captain Davis Love III, who was the losing captain at Medinah in 2010 when Europe made the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history to win.

With Europe three points behind going into Sunday’s singles, captain Darren Clarke had no choice but to front load his team, putting out the big guns, Messrs. McIlroy, Stenson, Rose and Garcia, together with top performing rookies Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, to try and give Europe a strong start.  It seemed to be working as Europe started brightly and were soon colouring the board blue.  But there was always a feeling that the outcome of the mouthwatering opening tie between the two teams’ rabble-rousing star performers, Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy, would decide the destiny of the trophy.

The front nine of the match produced one of the most staggering displays of golf ever seen, with both men storming to 5 under after only 8 holes.  At times it was more akin to a boxing match, as the two slugged it out, trading birdies and the odd eagle, blow for blow, and whipping up the already frenzied crowd into near meltdown.  The match reached its zenith on the 8th when McIlroy holed a monster 60ft putt and cheekily taunted the fans by cupping his ear in defiance.  Patrick Reed clearly took it as a challenge.  His response?  A 25ft birdie of his own!  Take that!  Reed nearly imploded with delight while the crowd went bananas.  McIlroy could only smile wryly at Reed’s one-upmanship.  The two men bumped fists like ragged boxers acknowledging a grudging respect for each other.

The extraordinary level of play was physically and emotionally draining and couldn’t possibly last.  McIlroy needed to win if Europe were going to stand any chance of a comeback, but on the back nine he started to wilt under the relentless onslaught of the pumped up American, who just couldn’t miss.  Although McIlroy courageously took it to the last hole, Reed was never going to yield.  With McIlroy’s defeat ended the European challenge.

No one had told Sergio Garcia though.  If Mcllroy’s battle with Reed was a Rumble in the Jungle, then Garcia’s fight with Phil Mickelson was the Thriller in Manila.  It was like a crazy golf putting contest as they exchanged birdie after birdie, hitting an incredible 19 birdies between them (10 for Phil, 9 for Sergio) to finish with 9 under par 63s.  And all for a half point each!  Sadly for Europe, the tide had already turned decisively in favour of the Americans, making the outcome of the match an anti-climax.  The American team were simply too strong for the Europeans, winning 7 1/2 of the 12 singles, to triumph emphatically by 17 points to 11.

The intensity of the American players and fans was the defining feature of the tournament.  The Americans were worthy winners.  They wanted it more and the course was set up for their superior short game.  Europe looked out of sorts throughout the contest and never really recovered from the opening morning 4-0 whitewash.  Some of their most experienced players, such as Westwood, Willet and Kaymer, didn’t show up, and there were probably too many rookies in the team, though conversely, their biggest positive was the outstanding performance of rookies Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who competed like seasoned veterans, and too often showed up their more senior compatriots.  Some of Darren Clarke’s decisions were also questionable, particularly for the crucial Saturday afternoon fourballs, breaking up the winning Spanish combination and playing the clearly out of form Willett and Westwood, whose capitulation in the final two holes was possibly the pivotal moment that tilted the Ryder Cup in America’s direction.

Nevertheless, an American victory was a good thing for the Ryder Cup.  Sport needs competition to thrive, and the Ryder Cup has been too one sided in recent years.  The US needed a win, not only to maintain their interest and motivation in the competition, but perhaps the Europeans’ as well.  Europe looked a little jaded and played like a team bloated with success.  Losing the Ryder Cup will, hopefully, reignite their desire to win it back at the first attempt.  The fervour of the American gallery, though it spilled over into boorishness a little too frequently, also demonstrates a healthy passion and deep regard for the Ryder Cup, which can only be good for golf.  Bring on Paris in 2018!

Ryder Cup Day 2: Swings And Roundabouts, Halves And Chokes

They say football is a game of two halves, but today, that adage belonged to the Ryder Cup.  The half that was, and the half that was never to be.  If Europe go on to win this Ryder Cup, they can thank the half they somehow eked out against the odds this morning in a match they were dead and buried in.  If, as now seems more likely, USA win the trophy, it may well have been a missed tiddler by Lee Westwood on the 18th late in the day that turned the tide of this tournament.

Unfortunately, Lee Westwood has form as a ‘choker’.  His proclivity for missing putts that are easier to hole than miss is why he has never won a Major, but in the past he has always been reliable in Ryder Cups.  Which is no doubt why he was captain Darren Clarke’s pick even though he is woefully out of form.  It is a decision that has, so far, backfired spectacularly.  Pairing him with the personally troubled (provoking sibling issues) Danny Willett for the afternoon fourballs was probably also not the best decision since, as Danny Willett admitted afterwards, they ‘couldn’t quite back one another up’.  Between the two of them, they somehow contrived to lose a match they could, and perhaps should, have won.  Significantly, losing the half point has helped to shift the momentum firmly in the Americans’ favour when they had been reeling from scraping a draw in a match they were winning easily.

An improbable comeback from the Spanish pairing of Sergio Garcia and rookie Rafa Cabrera-Bello in the final match against Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, when they were 4 down with 6 to play, to claim a vital half, had helped Europe to cut the overnight deficit from 5-3 to 6 1/2 to 5 1/2 after the morning foresomes.  The afternoon fourballs looked to be heading for a draw with Europe up in the first two matches and the Americans ahead in the last two matches.  However, in the second match out, Willett and Westwood twice lost the lead against J B Holmes and Ryan Moore to be all square going into the 17th hole.  Then, they both bogeyed to lose the 17th to a par putt.  But they gave themselves an excellent chance to win the final hole and gain a crucial half point with a great approach shot by Lee Westwood to within 3 feet of the hole.  Now, it just required steady nerves and steady hands.  And anyone but Lee Westwood to take the putt.  In the push of a putt, Europe had lost three out of the four afternoon fourballs and fallen an almost insurmountable three points behind – 9 1/2 to 6 1/2 points – going into Sunday’s singles.

Of course, a three point deficit isn’t completely unassailable.  After all, Europe were four points behind going into the singles at Medinah.  And we all know what happened next.  So does the USA captain Davis Love III.  He also happened to be the captain in 2012 when an inspired Europe came back from 10-6 down to win.  Another miraculous European comeback would also serve the ill mannered and unsporting American crowd right, who have once again shamed the American players, who, in contrast, have behaved with impeccable sportsmanship throughout the contest.  It is one thing to cheer for your own, but quite another to heckle and abuse the opposition players and shout out for balls to go in the water or miss the hole.  It would be worth Europe winning just to have them silenced.

 

Ryder Cup Day 1: Blazing Red Turns To Bonny Blue

Confession time.  The Ryder Cup has always been a tad problematic for yours truly here at Random Towers.  On account of the fact that my favourite golfer plays for the other team.  And he’s not just any player either.  He’s a major player, a big name, a Ryder Cup regular.  The sort of player you need to want to lose if you want your team to win.  I spend the whole year rooting for him at every golf tournament he plays and then for 3 days once every two years, I need him to lose.  Badly.  Ambiguous or what?

Obviously, we at Random Towers support Europe, but my favourite player is Phil Mickelson of the USA (not to mention the soft spot for Dustin Johnson and a confusing interest-hate spot for Jordan Spieth).  Also not mentioning that the heir apparent to big Phil is Rory McIlroy, poster boy for the European team.  So of course, inevitably, they had to be pitted against each other in Friday’s opening morning foursomes at Hazeltine.

Now, illustrious player he may be but Phil Mickelson hasn’t exactly covered himself in Ryder Cup glory.  Aside from an uninspiring playing record, there was the unedifying criticism of losing USA captain and everyone’s old favourite, Tom Watson, two years ago.  Earlier this week, he continued his unnecessary bad captaincy critique, this time dredging up old wounds from way back in 2004 when grumbling about how the then captain Hal Sutton had the temerity to pair him with Tiger Woods when there was very little love lost between them.  Come on, Phil.  I love you man, but move on already.  Phil was in need of some actual Ryder Cup points if he wanted to earn some redemptive brownie points with golf fans.  So who to support – Phil or Rory?

The dithering lasted until the first partisan cries of ‘OOOHSA’ ‘OOOHSA’.  Danny Willett’s vexatious brother may have been very wrong to write his incendiary article mocking the unruly American golfing gallery, but he did have a point.  They are notorious for their lack of sportsmanship during Ryder Cups.  The European fans, to give them their due, are fanatical but fair.  The Americans are just fanatical – about USA.  Great if you happen to support USA, but incredibly aggravating if you don’t.

They were in their element as red dominated the board, with the US team whitewashing Europe by winning all four of the morning games, with Phil and partner Ricky Fowler coming back from 2 down with 4 to play to win 1 up on the last against Rory and debutant Andy Sullivan.  Of course, I was happy (and relieved) for Phil, but miffed for Rory and Europe that they had thrown it away towards the end.  Thankfully, there was no conflict in the afternoon as Phil was rested for the fourballs.  The Europeans must have enjoyed a good lunch because they came storming back.  The rowdy home crowd was temporarily subdued as Europe won three out of the four matches, with only Brandt Snedeker’s fire hot putter saving the Americans from being whitewashed themselves.  It was poetic that Rory McIlroy should score the final point with a thrilling eagle on the 16th to bring Europe back into contention.  Rory had been getting wound up by the factional crowd all day so appeared determined to take pleasure in silencing them.  After he landed the winning putt, he bowed theatrically to the muted gallery before punching the air emphatically.  Point made, as well as gained.

Unfortunately for me, guess who’s up against whom in the opening match of tomorrow morning’s foursomes?  Yep, it’s  Phil v Rory Part II.  If they end up facing each other in the singles, I will cry.