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.

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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.

The FA Cup: Elixir or Poisoned Chalice?

They say history goes in cycles, and there were some intriguing similarities between Manchester United’s dramatic FA Cup semi-final win over Everton on Saturday and a couple of memorable semis of yesteryear.  Just like Saturday, the fabled semi-final replay of 1999 against Arsenal was won by the same scoreline, 2-1, and involved a miraculous penalty save by a talismanic goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, and a wonderful late goal (in this case in extra time) from an exciting talent by the name of Ryan Giggs (I wonder what happened to him?).  Saturday’s win also evoked fascinating parallels with the semi-final of 1990, which United won 2-1, defeating Oldham (in a replay) with a late (extra time) winning goal, and went on to play Crystal Palace in the final, just as this year’s team will do.  At the time, the manager – a certain Alex Ferguson – was under immense pressure from fans and the media alike as United faced the prospect of finishing another season trophy-less, and many considered him a goner should United not go on to win the Cup (anyone getting deja vu yet?).  In the event, United did win the FA Cup, which saved United’s season, possibly Fergie’s job, gave him his first trophy, and the rest, as they say…

It’s been a while since United won the FA Cup; 12 years to be precise, and 17 years since their last Wembley win.  Since their infamous pull-out in 2000 (a big mistake, as Fergie would admit retrospectively), the Cup appeared to have lost its allure for the club, and in the twilight years of his reign, Fergie didn’t seem particularly bothered about winning it.  But with Saturday’s enthralling win, United are, once again, in the Cup Final at Wembley, and winning the Cup could, once again, save our season, give manager Louis Van Gaal a much needed first trophy and possibly save his job…(Anyone getting deja vu yet again?  If not, did I mention we are playing the same team in the final that we played in 1990?)

Alas, that is where the similitude ends, if current newspaper reports are to be believed.  Apparently Jose Mourinho is on his way to Old Trafford next season, so it appears winning the FA Cup will not save LVG’s job.  Shame, as I rather enjoy deja vu-ing.  Shame, as I rather enjoy deja vu-ing.  (See what I did there?  You thought it was a typo, didn’t you?)  Of course, irrespective of the managerial musical chairs, winning the Cup could still herald the dawn of a new era of domination (United fans can only dream and pray).  Or, it could create uncertainty and doubt about the wisdom of appointing a new – and divisive – manager just when it looked like Van Gaal was starting to make things happen, and could, potentially, undermine the commencement of Mourinho’s tenure at the club.  If United win the Cup, King Louis’ ghost might come back to haunt Jose Mourinho’s reign.  If Jose doesn’t succeed straightaway, how soon before people start speculating what might have been had we kept faith with Louis?  Mourinho is a factious figure, with many detractors who are adamant he is not the right fit for United.  His short-termism, his penchant for parking the bus and his reluctance to take a chance on youth are all understandable concerns for United fans who demand that success be achieved ‘the United way’.  Jose, though, is used to a remit of success at any cost, so how will he cope with a caveat from United that success be obtained ‘the United way’?

Most importantly, what will he do with the current team?  Will the kids be alright?  LVG may have played the kids only because of mounting injuries, but at least he played them.   Would Mourinho have done the same in the circumstances, or would he have reverted to his default option of the checkbook?  Thanks to LVG’s boldness (or desperation, depending on your point of view), the United team is brimming with youthful pace and pizzazz once more, and should we win the Cup, there will be a greater sense of satisfaction in the achievement because we will have won it with the kids, reminiscent of the glory, glory days of the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings.  And once we have returned to winning with kids (™Manchester United), fans will expect the tradition to continue under the new manager, and if he doesn’t play ball (so to speak) how long before the fans become disgruntled and start wistfully mentioning LVG’s name, conveniently forgetting that it was their dissatisfaction that got him sacked prematurely in the first place?

So, ironically, not winning the FA Cup might make life easier for United as LVG’s departure would then be unequivocal and prompt little opposition, even accounting for the polarising effect of the incoming manager.  Either way, Jose Mourinho is never going to enjoy universal approbation again in the aftermath of his contemptible behaviour towards his own staff.  In appointing him United will have picked a proven winner, but will they have also sacrificed long term prosperity based on stability for a short term trophy hoard?

As a die hard United fan long enough in the tooth to remember with rose-tinted fondness (ageing is depressing but the memories are great) those bleak years when our annual suffering at seeing the Scousers stroll to yet another league title was briefly assuaged by the magic of a Cup win, I desperately want United to win the FA Cup on 23 May.  Just because I love the FA Cup, if nothing else.  But winning this FA Cup will not bring the same unadulterated joy as in the good old days.  It’s just going to make things more complicated with our managerial situation.  Winning the FA Cup next month will result more in questions and conundrums than champagne and glory.

[An edited version of this post was published at http://www.boxtoboxfootball.ukThe FA Cup: Elixir or Poisoned Chalice?]

 

No summer Euro jaunt for Rashford, please Roy

Another United match, another delectable goal from young, gifted and Red Marcus Rashford.  After helping United reach the FA Cup semi final on Wednesday night at Upton Park, with a mazy run and classy finish reminiscent of a young Ryan Giggs, the precocious Rashford was at it again on Saturday, scoring his 7th goal in 12 appearances with a peachy flick, to earn United the 3 points and relegate an indifferent Aston Villa to the Championship.  In a turgid season, Rashford has been one of the few bright points, together with goalkeeper David De Gea’s best human impression of a brick wall (surely the sole contender for our player of the season) and Anthony Martial’s authoritative presence in front of goal.

Should Rashford continue to sparkle to the end of the season, and even more, help United win the FA Cup for the first time in 12 years, the quiet murmur for Rashford to be included in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the Euros in France will, I fear, grow into a deafening clamour.  There is a danger that Hodgson may be influenced into heeding the public clarion call and giving Rashford a last minute call up.  If the England manager should acquiesce, he would be wrong to do so, for playing Rashford too early could ruin him.

Marcus Rashford is 18 years old.  He has never played international football.  He hasn’t even played a full season for Man Utd, for goodness sake.  How can he possibly be expected to carry the (probably deluded) hopes of a nation into a major international tournament?  Yes, the burden of unrealistic expectation will be inevitably placed on his youthful shoulders, irrespective of his inexperience, because unrealistic expectations are always put on England players, no matter what.  The media and Joe Public will expect Rashford to come off the bench and produce the same match defining performance for England that he has been doing for United.  Worse, there may even be a call for him to start should England struggle early on or pick up a few injuries.

There is no valid reason to risk plunging Rashford into the maelstrom of international football on the cusp of his nascent career.  Hodgson has plenty of young up and coming players at his disposal whom he has tested in international waters and who can be relied on to do a job for England.  Rashford needs to spend the summer recovering from his Premiership exertions, enjoy some important down time relaxing with family and friends, and then prepare for pre-season in readiness to play a first full season with United, probably under a new manager.

Once the new season is under way and a new England qualifying campaign begins, by all means introduce Rashford, gradually, into the team at a time when there is less pressure and he is free to play unburdened, so he can demonstrate his abilities and develop new skills.  This way, there is less danger of burn out or picking up injuries.

Ultimately, as a United fan, I don’t want Rashford’s glittering potential to be tarnished by being rushed prematurely into the hurly burly of international football by desperate England fans.  England can wait.  Rashford’s well-being and United come first.

Many choices, fewer chances

The drawback of being interested in an idiosyncratic array of sport is that, of course, sporting events clash and you are forced to choose between them.  Tough life, I know.  So it was quite handy the Man Utd coach got caught up in traffic (yeah, traffic in London – who knew?) as it gave me the chance to finish watching the British Gymnastics Championships.  Yes, really, football and gymnastics; love ’em both.  It was a good decision as the gymnastics turned out to be far better than the first half of the football at White Hart Lane.  United were pants and didn’t create a single chance – no change there, then – while Tottenham’s Erik Lamela missed a header so easy my granny could have scored it whilst doing her knitting and sipping an Earl Grey.

By the time the second half started, the final round of the Masters was also under way.  Unfortunately, no one was making a move from the pack, so I stuck with the football and was duly rewarded in the 61st minute with a shot on goal from Anthony Martial.  Yes, I know.  I was so overcome I had to lie down for a few moments to recover.  Unfortunately, the shock of creating one-whole shot on target seemed to send the entire United team into a catatonic stupor as well, rather conveniently enabling Spurs to score 3 goals in six minutes and secure the 3 points.  Well, it’s not like we want to be in the Champions League next season, is it?  Far more fun to languish in Europa League obscurity, trekking to far flung European outposts playing unknown teams with unpronounceable names (or the Scousers), instead.

The benefit of being interested in an idiosyncratic array of sport is that, of course, there is always another sporting event to divert your attention and rescue you from despairing over the state of your football team (I would be despairing over the state of my football team if I could be bothered).  Instead, I can despair over the state of Rory Mcllroy’s game at the Masters.