UCL or Nothing for Man United
Manchester United’s only hopes of silverware this season lie with success in the UEFA Champions League, but the Red Devils remain a long shot from Europe’s best.
Unless Man United miraculously win the Champions League, the club will be approaching its longest trophy drought for almost 40 years.
28 May, the date of this year's UCL Final in Saint Petersburg, will mark 1,830 days since United last hoisted a trophy into the air – more than five years since Jose Mourinho's troops won the Europa League in Stockholm.
At the rate they are going the current United team will re-write the club's history books, but for all the wrong reasons. The last time United went this long without a trophy was 1977-83, a total 2,191 days.
United‘s bloated senior squad was trimmed down a notch in the final week of the January transfer window, as the trio of Anthony Martial, Amad Diallo, and Donny van de Beek each landed a loan move away for the rest of the season. Additionally, Mason Greenwood was suspended by the club on January 30, amidst a police investigation involving the 20-year-old.
This brought United’s first-team down to 25 players – inclusive of young prospect Hannibal Mejbri, third-choice goalkeeper Tom Heaton and forgotten man Phil Jones.
There have been few shining lights for United this season, but David De Gea has unquestionably been one of them. De Gea has endured a sensational campaign thus far which puts the United goalkeeper top of the saves charts in the Premier League, with a total 85 saves and 14 more than the next-best.
The Spanish stopper has scooped three consecutive United Player of the Month awards from November through to January and was also voted Premier League POTM for January. De Gea bagged the award for the first time, and became the first goalkeeper to win the accolade in six years.
The Red Devils‘ first outing of February came under the Old Trafford floodlights on Friday evening, as Middlesbrough paid a visit to the M16 in the FA Cup Fourth Round – 13 days since United’s slender win over West Ham.
There were five changes to the XI that started against David Moyes’ Hammers. Most notably, Paul Pogba took Fred’s spot for the French midfielder's first start for the club since 16 October. Luke Shaw covered for Alex Telles, while Jadon Sancho was recalled for the suspended Greenwood, and Marcus Rashford started over Anthony Elanga. Dean Henderson earned just his second start of the season as De Gea was rewarded with a much-deserved rest.
Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani were given permission to miss the cup tie.
Boro had lost just once in their last nine Championship games – taking 22 points from 27 under new manager Chris Wilder. In Wilder's XI on Friday was former Red, Paddy McNair who has been playing at the Riverside Stadium since 2018.
Wilder was victorious on his last visit to the Theatre of Dreams in January last year. United were top of the Premier League pile and Wilder’s Sheffield United were bottom, but the Blades caused a major upset to leave Old Trafford with all the points.
Prior to kick-off on Friday, Wilder and United interim manager Ralf Rangnick each laid a wreath in commemoration of the 64th anniversary of the fatal Munich Air Disaster, which killed 21 people.
With barely 90 seconds on the clock, Sancho struck the crossbar with an audacious dink following a mix-up in the Boro defence. Fernandes skied the second ball.
United were awarded a penalty when Pogba was brought down in the area, and referee Anthony Taylor did not hesitate to point at the spot. On the eve of his 37th birthday, Cristiano Ronaldo failed to dispatch the spot-kick, and the away fans gave a grand cheer at the Portuguese blasting wide of the post on 20 minutes.
Five minutes later United did go in front, after knocking on the door for much of the opening quarter. Pogba made a smart interception in the centre circle, allowing Fernandes to whip a ball over the top towards Sancho who neatly buried a left-footed effort, which took a deflection off Boro defender Isaiah Jones.
United led at the break, and early in the second half Rashford fired the ball into the net for 2-0 but was flagged offside. Minutes later Rashford put a 1v1 half-volley over the goal, and in the very next play Ronaldo could only find the outside of the side-netting.
At the other end Henderson was called into action for the first time, ten minutes into the second half, as the England goalie did well to deny Matt Crooks‘ shot on goal.
United had several opportunities to put the game to bed, but instead they became exponentially profligate. Boro drew level on 65 minutes through Crooks, a lifelong United fan, and the equaliser stood despite a glaringly obvious handball by Duncan Watmore. VAR judged the handball ‘accidental’, although had Watmore been playing volleyball it would have been deemed a spike.
United’s wastefulness did not stop there, though. With 20 minutes left Fernandes pressed high to win the ball on the edge of Boro's penalty area, with an open goal in sight, but his shot struck the base of the post.
It was not until the 82nd minute that Rangnick made changes to his cavalry, as Rashford and Pogba were withdrawn for Elanga and Fred. Rangnick then swapped Varane for Jones at the end of regular time, and Sancho for Juan Mata ten minutes into extra-time.
As the Manchester rain cascaded down, so did United’s levels in quality. From the hour mark onwards into extra-time, United looked uncertain of themselves which spurred the visitors‘ confidence to have a say on the result.
Fred had the chance to finish the game towards the end of first-half extra-time, but his right-footed shot was very wide of the target. With the teams inseparable at 1-1 after 120 minutes, the result was to be decided on penalties.
McNair converted Boro's first penalty, and Mata put away United's first. The visitors' spot-kicks were all splendid aside from their second which Henderson got a hand to but it snuck under the United ’keeper.
Payero, Howson, Tavernier, Bamba, Watmore, Fry and Peltier all scored their pens for Boro, as did Maguire, Fred, Ronaldo, Fernandes, McTominay and Dalot for United, before Elanga launched the 16th and final penalty into the Stretford End to put Boro's name into the hat for the Fifth Round.
Despite Elanga missing from the spot, the blame undoubtedly lay with senior players such as Ronaldo, Rashford and Fernandes who all fluffed their chances of putting the game to bed inside 90 minutes.
AET Man Utd 1 - 1 Middlesbrough
United next traveled to bottom club Burnley, hoping to bounce back and put the frustrating cup exit firmly behind them. United had suffered just one defeat in ten league games, meanwhile the Clarets were without a win in nine ahead of welcoming the Reds to Turf Moor.
Rangnick made two tweaks to the starting lineup, starting Cavani over Ronaldo and restoring De Gea in goal for Henderson.
United started promisingly, and Rashford tested Burnley ’keeper Nick Pope low at his near-post. United went ahead in the 12th minute when Varane nodded in Fernandes’ free-kick for the French defender’s first goal at the club. However, VAR intervened and Maguire was adjudged to have interfered with play from an offside position.
Burnley could not keep United out for much longer, and Pogba delivered the opener in his first Premier League start for four months. Rashford played in the overlapping Shaw who pulled it back from the byline and Pogba was on hand to rifle home. This time the goal stood.
For the third time inside 21 minutes the ball crossed Burnley’s goal line, but was ruled out for a second time. What would have been a Josh Brownhill own-goal was overruled for a soft foul by Pogba on Erik Pieters in the immediate build-up.
Shaw threatened with his overlapping runs and after 30 minutes the full-back's deflected cross found Cavani a couple of yards from goal, but Pope's knee denied the Uruguayan from point-blank range.
United had a dozen attempts in the first half with less than half on target, while Burnley reached the break without registering a single attempt.
In the second half the two sides seemed to switch roles and it was the hosts who came out the blocks firing in the second period.
The scores were level less than 120 seconds after the restart, as the Clarets' January acquisition Wout Weghorst split United’s defence open and played in strike partner Jay Rodriguez, who beat De Gea 1-on-1 to equalise after being played onside by Shaw.
Five minutes later Weghorst's volley from 20 yards was kept out by a low stop by De Gea. Burnley threw everything at United and it effectively worked in shooting United's tempo and confidence to bits.
Ronaldo entered the fray with a quarter of the 90 to go, replacing Cavani. Lingard came on for McTominay with ten minutes left, and Elanga for Rashford with five remaining.
Despite ending the match with six attacking players on the pitch, United failed to find a winner against a team with just one league victory all season. United's chances slipped away with the lashing Lancashire rain, and for the second time in as many matches they stumbled after conceding and were not clinical enough to claim the result.
F/T Burnley 1 - 1 Man Utd
Maguire said post-match that it was a “disappointing goal to concede on our behalf”, failing to acknowledge his own obvious fault contributing to the goal, nor the fact that the English centre-half was the culprit for Varane's early goal being cancelled out.
Maguire seldom takes responsibility for his performances, and is often found recycling the same verses of “it was not good enough, we must do better”.
Standards trickle down from the captain and Maguire is not up to the standards of a Manchester United skipper. Ronaldo, Fernandes, De Gea, and Varane (just to name a few) are all better-suited and more natural candidates to wear the armband for United going forward.
With each passing game, United’s season is becoming more and more frustrating and dejecting, with the stalemate at Turf Moor meaning United drop out of the top four. Rangnick and his men have three league matches in nine days before a crunch Champions League round of 16 first leg in Madrid.
Atlético were thumped at the weekend by Barcelona, 4-2, to drop out of the top four in La Liga (similarly to their upcoming English opponents) but Diego Simeone's men will need no second invitations to pounce should United persist in failing to produce the goods.
Man United upcoming fixtures:
12 Feb - Southampton (H)
15 Feb - Brighton (H)
20 Feb - Leeds Utd (A)
23 Feb - Atlético Madrid (A)
26 Feb - Watford (H)
6 March - Man City (A)