Diego Maradona RIP

Italia '90 World Cup was the start of my life-long passion for football, and Argentina came into the tournament as defending champions and favourites. They dramatically lost the first game against Cameroon 0-1 and discovered their mojo in Naples, a city where Diego Maradona had taken its team Napoli to the summit of Italian Serie A single-handedly by winning the scudetto twice and a UEFA trophy. There they beat USSR with Maradona saving a goal-bound shot with his hands and got away with it, again! They became the favourites when they beat Brazil with Maradona taking them head-on and played hosts Italy in Naples of all cities in the semi-finals. Result was pre-destined especially if it was to be decided on penalties. Finals against Germany was a bit of an anti-climax as injuries and suspensions had robbed Argentina of Claudio Cannigia amongst others, lost by a penalty to Germany led by Lothar Matthaus who by 1990 had become perhaps the finest sweeper transitioning from box-to-box player being compatible with his age.


Visit to Napoli in 2013 made them my favourite team from Serie A. Most striking feature of the visit was the mural near a church that depicted Maradona more than two decades after he left them. While still on loan at Boca Juniors he was tempted by the prospect of playing in England where his senior teammate and 1978 World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles played at Tottenham Hotspur. Maradona was being linked with Arsenal and he claimed to have watched the 1979 FA Cup final which Arsenal won 3-2 over Manchester United. Those links never materialized and instead he headed to Barcelona where he was joined by his former Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti.

Manchester United made it to the quarter-finals of 1984 Cup Winners Cup their first in a European competition after a 15 year gap and faced Barcelona for the first time in a competitive fixture. Ron Atkinson's team always played attacking football in the United way that delighted the fans and this fixture wasn't going to change that. 19 year old Graeme Hogg made his European debut in the first game at Nou Camp and scored an own goal. Captain Bryan Robson was clear on goal yet uncharacteristically didn't score and missed another chance. Big Ron asked everyone to not dwell on mistakes. Maradona was not very effective and had to be substituted. Late on they scored a goal to lead 2-0. Bryan Robson wrote an apology to fans and everyone trained hard, winning two league games before the second leg to go top of the league which gave them and fans lot of hope.

Bryan Robson played the match of his life to make amends for the 1st leg by scoring two goals while dictating play box-to-box aided by his partners in midfield Ray Wilkins, Arnold Muhren and Remi Moses. Graeme Hogg marked Diego Maradona effectively to nullify any threat. Frank Stapleton scored the winner and for last 35 minutes United were able to soak any late threat to hold on to the lead and win 3-2 overall. Fans played a big part in the match, amplifying every United attack. Official figures are of 58,547 to have attended the match but actually felt like over 70,000 who crowded the pitch in joy after the final whistle, lifting their skipper Bryan Robson in adulation. Robson was also the England captain under his name-sake manager the great Sir Bobby Robson. Injuries and suspensions to Robson, Wilkins and Muhren meant United lost to Michel Platini led Juventus 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals amid talks between Robson and Italian giants which never progressed due to 3 million asking price.



England got off to a poor start in the 1986 World Cup losing their opening game to Portugal and then drew 0-0 with Morocco where Bryan Robson dislocated his shoulder when opposing player pulled him in the penalty box. So concerned were the England players that they tended to their skipper and not at the referee to award the penalty! Bobby Robson asked him to be around the England team and not fly back to be operated upon. This later impacted the start of United season which unfortunately led to the sacking of Ron Atkinson. He missed the next two matches which England won by 3 goal margin including a hat-trick for Gary Lineker and faced Argentina with confidence in quarter-finals. Outcome might have been different with Bryan Robson in the side. Though 'hand of God' goal gets more attention but its the other goal that Maradona scored against England taking on players from the right of midfield through to the defense to score past Peter Shilton from his brilliant left-foot the greatest World Cup goal of all time dubbed 'Goal of the Century'. Purists point to the team goal that Brazil scored against Italy in 1970 that encapsulates the dependency amongst every member of the team to be the rightful owner of that moniker.



To compare the greats is a thankless yet unavoidable task. To have managed to unite his national side and win the World Cup apart from club success will keep him above Lionel Messi, which the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson dispute. While Ronaldo will perhaps eclipse George Best by winning not only at club level but with Portugal, similarly Zinedine Zidane edges his compatriot Michel Platini. Johan Cruyff and Pele still seem unmatched head and shoulders above the rest. As South American teams have suffered a decline in the last 15 years many argue is international football still relevant? It certainly adds a different dimension in the ability to bond with another set of players to win the quadrennial event amidst nationalist sentiments and tremendous pressure that it naturally entails, unlike the often serene and contained surroundings of the club football.

Away to high flying Saints

United were expected to beat Istanbul midweek at home which they duly did by a big 4-1 score-line that again highlighted how shocking it was to lose the reverse fixture 1-2 with shambolic defending. Donny van de Beek started with Fred in the middle with Anthony Martial on left and Marcus Rashford on right of front three as Edinson Cavani led the line. Only concern United have is the knocks to Marcus Rashford, Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and will continue to be without Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay. Its McTominay's absence that forced the positive change! The best part about Tuesday was the accurate crossing of Alex Telles that led to two goals.

Its Southampton away for Manchester United next, whose manager Ralph Hassenhuttl many argue could as a coach do a far better job at managing elite teams to improve their performance considerably. The turnaround that he has managed after that abysmal 0-9  home defeat to Leicester City, a joint record for biggest score in English Premier League with Manchester United beating Ipswich Town 9-0 at Old Trafford in 1995, has been simply incredible. He has played 5 to 8 players from that same group in almost every game since then, improved them individually and collectively as a team. Playing high-pressing 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 that many clubs and club owners in England take a liking to, he certainly will manage a much bigger club soon. Main risk to mitigate this season was the over reliance on Danny Ings for goals and the two wins in last two games are a testament to that, and thus far have scored 4 more goals than United. Presently they are on a 7 match unbeaten run including three successive 2-0 home wins. He knows what his first team is unlike Solskjaer who has much bigger squad and more players to integrate. His main changes have been on the left wing with Djenepo, Redmond and Walcott trying to make it their own.
 
A thoughtful Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave a day-off to his squad due to a rare 4-day gap between two games. Most pressing thing is to bring back goals from Anthony Martial, and it could be via penalty with Fernandes and Rashford showing good team spirit. Discipline of Saints to check the opposing flanks will force Solskjaer to play oft-used Aaron Wan-Bissaka ahead of Brandon Williams despite the home game next to PSG where United still need a point to qualify for the lucrative knock-out phase of the Champions' League. Last match between these two sides had a controversial moment when Saints enforcer Romeu fouled Mason Greenwood which many believed deserved a red card. 19 year old hasn't appeared enough this season and this match could be a test of his developing mentality given the history, can become more of a folklore if he were to get the better of his avenger in the right spirit. Bruno Fernandes has been involved in staggering 34 goals in 35 games since joining United is clearly an outlier, no wonder rumours of him being linked with two Spanish giants surfaced.

Amongst the most odd things to have taken place in football was the kit-change by United from grey to blue at half-time after being 3-0 down in April 1996 at the Dell, previous home of Southampton. That change brought about a consolation goal in injury time by Ryan Giggs and a fine of 10,000 pounds for Sir Alex Ferguson who claimed the players could not see each other on a sunny day in the south coast. Later that year in October, United lost by an unbelievable 6-3 score again at the Dell when Roy Keane was sent off on 21 minutes.

United are on a 3 match unbeaten run including 7 consecutive away wins and this could be record equaling win of 8 last achieved under the illustrious Sir Alex Ferguson. Although a draw is more likely outcome given the results of last season, injury to Danny Ings should tip the balance in United's favour but the rise of Che Adams being linked with Scotland call-up makes this a tough match. Having drawn with Chelsea and seen off Everton, Hassenhuttl isn't fazed to meet the United challenge but clearly is cognizant of the need to have everything fall in place perfectly. Solskjaer compared his impact with Jurgen Klopp's arrival at Liverpool and that's a great compliment. After getting the better of another upstart in Leipzig's Nagelsmann, will the Norwegian emerge victorious against the Austrian with the might of Manchester United?

de Gea(GK), Wan-Bissaka, Telles, Lindelof, Maguire, Fred, van de Beek, Fernandes, Greenwood, Martial, Rashford

In defense of Solskjaer

Manchester United have lost three and drawn one of their first four home games this season. An unacceptable record in any year but the pandemic keeping fans away from attending matches has made a huge difference. These match going die-hard fans who have shown broader perspective to support the team and Solskjaer through thick and thin, and their absence has clearly hurt not just United but many big clubs across Europe this season. Its not unrealistic to summon the spirit of Stretford End to chase teams down and hunt for goals, but misses the spontaneity of fans to respond in their own characteristic way to the changing ebb and flow of the game to the benefit of their team by modulating their vocal chords as if in a symphony. Artificial Intelligence has still some way to go to compensate for that.

Is it simply a case of United unable to dictate play at home unlike playing on the counter away? Tactically Solskjaer has come under lot of scrutiny to be not cognizant of the fact that an underprepared team due to lack of pre-season and given the size of the squad at his disposal did not do enough to protect the team early on. In a results driven business this has taken the gloss away from completing a milestone of 100 games in charge with the defeat at home to Arsenal a first in 14 years! Records seem to tumble more than be created in a positive sense these days. Busy set of schedules ahead and with two weeks of preparation that Solskjaer has so far made good use of to bounce back stronger from an international break, will see United through against West Bromwich Albion this weekend although recently they've had good record at Old Trafford with three wins in last five.

Trophy-less in last three years since the UEFA cup triumph in May, 2017 under Jose Mourinho is a valid cause for concern but overlooks the achievement of finishing 3rd to qualify for the Champions' League which guarantees more revenue that foreign owners brutally demand. Solskjaer has cleared the dressing room of deadwood reducing the wage-bill and make the squad more younger that has seen the emergence of Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe. The youth setup has been revamped which was totally neglected before, to rightly put impetus back on club's core philosophy of being the best club in the world to promote home grown players. These changes hasn't been easy to bring about whilst maintaining a sense of calm and positivity unlike the acrimonious changes under Tommy Docherty and Jose Mourinho.

Task to take United back to the top becomes almost impossible when dominant rivals confirm the extension of their famous coach's tenure. Cup competitions provide the only hope of silverware again this season. Unlike the modern day coach's, Solskjaer remains a manager in the classical sense and that does seem to have its limitations to apply instantaneous changes to impact the game tactically and relies on his staff to carry out detailed training regimen. Decision to play Bruno Fernandes as number 10 has paid off, relegating highly influential World Cup winner Paul Pogba to the bench. His powerful agent Mino Raiola had caused huge embarrassment to the club lambasting them on many occasions in the past. Club betraying the traditions of Busby and Ferguson backed the player who was world's most marketable player at the time instead of serial winner across four countries. Will Pogba's departure become Solskjaer's first bitter experience of his reign remains to be seen? What's become unquestionable is the impact Bruno Fernandes' has had in a very short space of time such that he will certainly be crucial to not just Solskjaer's survival but his longevity as United manager. More importantly fans would like to see the return of the famous United swagger to outclass opponents under a true leader like Bruno Fernandes.

Tottenham and Leicester have vastly improved this season reducing the chances of United finishing in the top four significantly thus increasing the pressure on Solskjaer. Next three matches against West Brom, Southampton and West Ham are crucial to get points before difficult set of fixtures start from the derby with City, United then face Sheffield United away (last year it ended 3-3 after United rallied from 0-2 down to score 3 goals in 7 minutes and ultimately draw), Leeds United, Leicester City and Wolves this year. Pandemic has meant clubs are less than willing to sack their manager to incur further losses in terms of severance pay that runs into millions. December 1st week has been the marker for that and in this season Slaven Bilic in the opposing dugout has emerged as the favourite for becoming the first managerial casualty this season. Progression in the Champions' League group stage will act as a cover for Solskjaer to make the push upwards from lowly 14th place with a game in hand.

Ideally this match would be well suited for Solskjaer to try playing his three best midfielders together in Fernandes-Pogba-van de Beek against West Brom but the lack of victory at home will intensify the need to ensure a win no matter what by playing Fred and McTominay. Fans hope McTominay would carry the momentum from being part of Scotland's incredible run to qualify for a major tournament since 1998 World Cup. Injury to Luke Shaw will mean a first start for Alex Telles and probably Axel Tuanzebe starting ahead of doubtful Victor Lindelof. Daniel James had a great international break scoring for Wales which will bring him back into reckoning. Clamor for him to move on loan is unwarranted as he can learn directly under Juan Mata at United more than anywhere else. His game management considering his age needs to be relooked at by Solskjaer. Structural changes being mostly done its these tiny but crucial adjustments that might turn the Norwegian's reign into a lasting success. Summer signings have added squad depth which was lacking for a long time. His toolset looks almost complete now with the exception of wingers. It's time to deliver on the pitch.

de Gea(GK), Wan-Bissaka, Telles, Tuanzebe, Maguire(C), McTominay, Fred, Fernandes, James, Martial, Rashford

Must win game for Solskjaer, again!

Manchester United travel to Goodison Park to play Everton after two defeats in two competitions, first a loss to Arsenal at home in Old Trafford after a gap of 14 years and secondly a least expected away loss at Istanbul the bottom side of group H in Champions' League that was shambolic. After a run of successive victories when Solskjaer took over, United suffered their biggest defeat of his first season at Goodison Park 0-4 mauling that made the Norwegian to rightly apologize to the fans "I just want to apologise to the fans. They're the only people with the badge on today who can hold their head high, because we can't." Just as now, and back then all criticism was directed at the players.

These defeats highlight the importance of Victor Lindelof, clearly if it wasn't for him United's loss to Arsenal would have been greater instead of being just 0-1. Suffering from a bad back he might miss this crucial game. David de Gea looks like he has regained his lost form, responding positively to induction of Dean Henderson becoming his deputy. Is Harry Maguire the right man to organize United's defense? Has he got the right protection in front of him? McTominay has industry not discipline, Fred is not a specialist central defensive midfield nor best in the world, while Nemanja Matic has lost his pace to play regularly.

Reactions on team selection seems to have gone to the head of Solskjaer. Donny van de Beek started after an intense backlash especially from Patrice Evra who questioned the rationale behind his purchase after spending more time on the bench. Ole Gunnar has persisted with both McTominay and Fred after the 1-6 defeat to Spurs, and removed not one but both of them at Istanbul after Paul Scholes told Premier League Productions "It’s as poor as I’ve seen Manchester United at Old Trafford to be honest with you. You have to give Arsenal credit, they were very good but on other hand you have to expect more from United and the two midfield players especially." Paul Pogba started again after a seemingly unexpected comment by Bruno Fernandes the talisman of last season's revival, but the Frenchman bizarrely few times quite clearly failed to pass to the most influential United player of recent times in Marcus Rashford. Fernandes said this after the Istanbul defeat that further raised eyebrows about the football management team responsible for running the club "We need to do much better, and we need to do something more than say 'Do something in the next game', because it will be a difficult game for us." 

Victory over Leipzig and Newcastle was huge but they came late in the second half. But Solskjaer again sounded overly optimistic when he said "It's not long ago we were the best thing since sliced bread, beating Leipzig and PSG. [You get] ups and downs in football. You've got to have belief." This followed an assertion from him that 3rd win of the season did not come until the 10th game last season easily forgetting that last season was the worst start to a United campaign in 33 years! 

Sir Alex Ferguson sounded out Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho to be his successor but was unlucky to not get any of them to become the manager of Manchester United. Instead it was David Moyes. Then Louis van Gaal took over instead of Mauricio Pochettino and later Jose Mourinho instead of Carlo Ancelotti. With Solskjaer the heart is in the right place to restore United to its glory but the means seem missing like a structured consistent performance despite spending close to 250 million on squad overhaul. For the second straight season United have started badly to mount a challenge in the English Premier League that seems to throw up surprising results opening the competition up for many clubs to claim. United thus far seem unable to grab this opportunity, on the back of a delayed Europa League Cup that did not give the players adequate recovery time. Luckily United have a big squad to be able to cope especially the addition of Henderson, van be Beek and Telles add depth which wasn't there earlier. But the club knew this situation all along and still delayed the transfers to not help their man in charge. These are the minutiae that top coaches of the world in Mauricio Pochettino look at before choosing their next move.

United do have a good squad even if its not great like the top three of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, to eventually come good and climb the league table with a game in hand. Its these players who for the sake of their careers get going again. Else the upcoming break due to international fixtures might come to haunt Solskjaer. Jose Mourinho was sacked after losing away to Liverpool, today their neighbours Everton host United in a must win game for the Reds.

Solskjaer notches up 100 games as United manager

Time has flown either quickly as a result of two fine winning runs or exasperatingly when United have yearned for a win. Squad has undergone a definite transformation with most players wanting a move have been dispatched while the newer ones are regular's in captain Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani. Most tellingly there is a general optimism about the future as academy graduates Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams, Dean Henderson are integrated, and established ones rediscovering their form in David de Gea, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Nemanja Matic, Fred and Scott McTominay. Depth is the new dimension this season that should allow Solskjaer to tweak his line-up and tactics to ensure a result no matter the opposition. 

His record so far in 99 games has been 55 won, 21 draws and 23 lost. He is close to overtaking Louis van Gaal's 103 matches in charge and near to Jose Mourinho's 144. Both those legendary manager's however won trophies in that time! Having achieved Champions' League qualification in his first full season in charge, the next aim will be to win a trophy before mounting a challenge to the English Premier League. Injuries, lack of squad depth nor disappointment over not getting Jadon Sancho can no longer be an excuse. Certainly United need wingers (signed two youth players Facundo Pellistri from Penerol and Amad Diallo from Atalanta) a specialist position for which they were known to have had the best over the years in George Best, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. Array of options in midfield now overcomes that caveat by playing 4-3-3 with Rashford and Greenwood in wider positions or playing with three at the back by pushing wing-backs further up or utilizing Juan Mata, Daniel James. Coming from 0-1 down to win over Newcastle, Solskjaer said "our season starts now" after lack of pre-season having started with two home defeats. Scrutiny will increase with every points dropped as they are already playing catch-up.

United face Arsenal at home after thrashing last year's semi-finalists in RB Leipzig 5-0 including a hat-trick for Marcus Rashford who came on as a sub. Last person to achieve that feat was the current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who put four past Nottingham Forest in a 8-0 demolition job. Emergence of Axel Tuanzebe to cover for Harry Maguire away in Paris to keep Kylian Mbappe quiet, and Dean Henderson's assured performances in the League Cup games indicating that he's settled after spending season's away on loan have been the two best positives that adds to squad depth further. United lead their group with maximum 6 points and now play two back to back matches against the weakest team in Istanbul Basaksehir which should tee them up to finish as group leaders.

Arsenal under Mikel Arteta won the FA Cup last year beating United's conqueror's Chelsea and managed to keep hold of their star player in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal have not won at Old Trafford since 2006, while United are desperate for points to move up from 15th position having taken only one point from three home games, their worst run since 1972-73. Every United match now on there will be a discussion on who was left out, why and did that work out? Donny van de Beek's presence has impacted five of the nine goals United have scored this season, mostly in late second half. He got his first start against RB Leipzig and match was evenly placed till his substitution. Paul Pogba played on the left of midfield his natural position and had a good game. Goals however rolled in after Bruno Fernandes came on.

Alex Telles is out after contracting covid-19 without displaying any symptoms. As per reputed journalist Christian Falk, United are in talks with AC Milan midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu to sign him up for free after his current contract runs out in June, 2021 and is another number 10 rather than a winger. Rumours of links with a Turkish player before the squad flies to play in Istanbul is good to gain attention locally and positively highlights that the club are scouting for players for the next transfer window. Letting in five goals would have an adverse effect on Dayot Upamecano's immediate potential but clubs will look for his response in the next matches. Jadon Sancho scored midweek after a poor start to the new season at Dortmund after being linked with United all summer.

United are yet to dominate the match from the start and win convincingly. Tactically PSG away was great team effort but it's been the substitutes who have given United the wins in the final 20 minutes against both Newcastle and Leipzig. This is the next milestone. Only wins against Arsenal and Everton before the second international break will assuage fans after another poor start to the season. United need to be mindful of being complacent after that huge mid-week win. Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford who were on the bench midweek will return to the starting XI, meaning Donny van de Beek will go back to being a sub. As its a home match Greenwood may start in his second straight match while Cavani might need to wait a while longer to make his full debut. Anthony Martial will miss this match the last of his three match ban. Willian's return to Arsenal's starting XI will worry United.

de Gea(GK), Wan-Bissaka, Shaw, Lindelof, Maguire(C), Fred, McTominay, Pogba, Fernandes, Greenwood, Rashford

After Jack Charlton the elder brother of Sir Bobby Charlton, another World Cup winner in England and Manchester United's finest Nobby Stiles passed away. Being just 5"5' he played as centre-half in the 60's alongside Bill Foulkes to help Manchester United win two league championship and European Cup in 1968. He missed out the 1963 FA Cup final through injury. He man marked Eusebio to help both United and England overcome Benfica and Portugal in crucial stages of the great run. His joyful dance at the end of 1966 World Cup win and toothless grin is permanently etched in folklore.

'#Happy' made everyone succeed. Central to Busby & Ramsey's teams to knit together talents to win all major honours with #MUFC & '66 #WorldCup with #ENG. Perfect foil for @SirBobby,read the game well,a ball winner. Two ops ended his career at just 27. Youth coach. #RIPNobbyStiles

— Srinivas Rao (@srinivasjrao) October 30, 2020

Return of Cristiano Ronaldo

Manchester United were nudged by Jorge Mendes, the expert agent of Cristiano Ronaldo when he opened direct talks with local rivals City abou...

Popular Posts