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March make or break for Man United

March will be the defining month of a frustrating season for Manchester United.

Man United took five draws and two wins in February, and a tough schedule in the upcoming month will ultimately define the Red Devils’ underwhelming season.

When Ralf Rangnick took charge at the back end of last year, the short-term plan was for the German to knock United into shape before a challenging run of games in the final months of the season.

Now, after 12 weeks, it hardly comes more difficult than United’s diary in March. Rangnick and his squad welcome Antonio Conte’s Tottenham and Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid to Old Trafford in the space of four days, sandwiched by visits to both Premier League title contenders – Manchester City and Liverpool.

Man United upcoming fixtures:

6 March - Man City (A)

12 March - Tottenham (H)

15 March - Atlético Madrid (H)

20 March - Liverpool (A)

After a 1-1 draw with bottom club Burnley, United entertained Southampton at Old Trafford on 12 February. Rangnick squared up with an ex-colleague in Ralph Hassenhuttl after the two formerly worked together at RB Leipzig from 2016-18.

There was a sole change to Rangnick’s XI from the stalemate at Turf Moor, as Cristiano Ronaldo returned to lead the line ahead of Edinson Cavani who was ruled out with a groin problem.

United came close to taking an early lead when Ronaldo rounded Saints ’keeper Fraser Forster after just seven minutes, but Romain Perraud easily kept out Ronaldo‘s soft left-footed shot.

It was an end-to-end affair right from the off and Che Adams had the chance to gift the Saints an early lead, but the forward scuppered his header from close range. Immediately at the other end Jadon Sancho was denied by Forster.

United did go in front through Sancho after 21 minutes, as Bruno Fernandes conjured a delightful pass to breach Southampton’s back-line and Marcus Rashford put it on a plate for countryman Sancho to poke home the opener.

Rashford was shown the game’s first yellow card after 15 minutes, before Scott McTominay went into referee Stuart Attwell’s book after half an hour.

Not for the first time this month or year United failed to impose their demeanour and impetus, and Southampton troubled David de Gea increasingly towards the half-time whistle.

United somehow managed to hold onto their narrow lead at the break, albeit the visitors drew level with under three minutes played in the second period. Adams side-footed in off de Gea’s far post after the Saints striker was played onside by former Saint, Luke Shaw.

Southampton continued to push and their transition play was unquestionably miles better than United’s on the day. Armando Broja got the better of Maguire on more than one occasion, and the United captain was fortunate to not concede a penalty after some calamitous defending just moments earlier.

Frustration grew for United at the other end as Forster firmly kept his side in the contest. United had limited chances to see out the game but to no avail, and it ended level pegging with the points shared at Old Trafford.

F/T Man Utd 1 - 1 Southampton

United next had to contend with Brighton and Hove Albion who have seriously pushed above their weight this season. Ahead of the rearranged fixture with the Seagulls, United had set an uncomfortable trend of being unrecognisable from themselves over two halves of a 90-minute game. This fixture was rescheduled following a coronavirus outbreak at United at the back end of 2021.

Rangnick made three tweaks to his XI after a disappointing draw with Southampton, as Fred and Anthony Elanga replaced Pogba and Rashford in the starting lineup. Victor Lindelöf returned to the XI after Raphaël Varane was deemed ill shortly before kick-off.

It was Brighton who set the tone in the first half, and United desperately struggled to get going. Graham Potter‘s side were inches from edging in front, and would have been up were it not for de Gea’s fingertip save to keep out Jakub Moder’s free towering header.

The half interval could not come soon enough for the home team, and it was clear as day that drastic changes were needed at the break.

United started the second stanza in the best way possible, and took an unexpected lead on 51 minutes. Yves Bissouma lost possession to high pressing by McTominay and Fernandes, before Ronaldo gathered the ball and lashed it into the net nearest the Stretford End.

This was Ronaldo‘s first goal of 2022, ending a six-match goal drought for the 37-year-old attacker. Almost concurrently to Ronaldo’s stunning opener did Lionel Messi miss a penalty against Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Things went from bad to worse for the visitors as Lewis Dunk was given his marching orders, less than three minutes after Ronaldo broke the deadlock. Anthony Elanga dispossessed the Brighton skipper on the edge of the Seagulls’ penalty area and, with the help of VAR, referee David Coote brandished a red card after reversing his initial on-field decision of a booking for Dunk.

With a goal and a man advantage, United upped the ante and pressed hard at Potter’s wounded army. Ronaldo went close to doubling up, but Robert Sanchez brilliantly nudged the goal-bound header over the crossbar.

Ronaldo then intercepted a loose pass by Sanchez, and squared it for countryman Fernandes who was unable to beat the Brighton goalie from 12 yards. Chances kept coming for United but Ronaldo could only guide a header wide of the target after Fernandes’ sumptuous cross.

At the other end, Moder‘s curling effort crashed against the woodwork before former United man Danny Welbeck failed to keep his header on goal with just a handful of minutes remaining.

United eventually went two up and sealed the points deep into stoppage time, when substitute Pogba quickly and shrewdly played a free-kick in Fernandes' direction. The Portuguese playmaker calmly launched it into the net for the United faithful to breathe a great sigh of relief, after their team had stumbled in all their previous three outings with Middlesbrough, Burnley & Southampton.

F/T Man Utd 2 - 0 Brighton

Days after the Brighton game Rashford and Harry Maguire hit back at media speculation over rifts in the United dressing room, including reports of a power struggle between Maguire and Ronaldo for the United captaincy.

In his media briefing prior to United’s trip to Yorkshire rivals Leeds Utd, Rangnick categorically denied discussing the notion of captaincy with any player, and the interim manager confirmed that Maguire would continue as skipper at least until the end of the season.

Despite the rumours being put to bed by several United figures, the ultimate truth is that Ronaldo constantly demands more from his teammates while Maguire is more often than not sub-standard to start in – let alone captain – this United side.

United made the short trip across Yorkshire to contest a third league game in nine days, at traditional rivals Leeds United.

Jesse Lingard made his first Premier League start for United since January 2020, coming in for Elanga, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka earned his first league start since 28 November at Chelsea. Pogba also returned to the XI in place of Fred.

United became the 20th and last Premier League team to score from a corner this season, eventually finding the net after 139 corners. United found the opener through a Maguire header, after the United skipper had come under much scrutiny ahead of the trek to Elland Road.

United doubled their advantage on the stroke of half-time, with Lindelöf's surging run forward playing a huge role in the goal. Lindelöf twice combined with Sancho, who dinked the ball into the danger area for Fernandes to head home through Illan Meslier.

Storm Eunice was in full effect and the gushing rain had intensified during the half interval, leaving the pitch drenched with water ahead of the second period.

United were adamant to put their bottle behind them but their misfortunes returned to haunt them. Leeds were level less than 10 minutes after the restart, netting twice in the space of a mere 58 seconds.

Rodrigo bamboozled countryman de Gea with an attempt at goal from an almost impossible angle, flying over the United goalie and into the net to halve the deficit. No more than a minute later, ex-United man Dan James whizzed the ball across the face of goal and half-time substitute Raphinha was on hand to restore parity for the hosts.

Rangnick made a double change with a quarter of the 90 to play, soon after which United reestablished their lead. Pogba and Lingard were withdrawn for Fred and Elanga, and three minutes after the changes Fred and Sancho combined for the Brazilian midfielder to lash inside Meslier's near-post.

Leeds struggled to keep their composure and Marcelo Bielsa's side accumulated six yellow cards from the hour mark onwards. A sublime flick by Fernandes late on allowed for Elanga to put the game to bed, and United's no.36 shushed the Leeds faithful after being struck with a coin while celebrating United's third goal.

A resounding win for the Reds, who have netted nine goals in 180 minutes this season against their classic foes.

F/T Leeds Utd 2 - 4 Man Utd

After three Premier League outings in the space of nine days, United next turned their attention to a crunch UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg away to Atlético Madrid.

Atlético had recently dropped out of the La Liga top four, winning just three of six league games ahead of United’s visit to the Wanda Metropolitano. Diego Simeone’s men have already conceded more league goals this term (34) than they did throughout their title-winning 2020/21 campaign (25).

More than three decades had passed since Atlético and Man United last shared a pitch, however talisman Ronaldo is by no means a stranger to Los Rojiblancos. In fact, Ronaldo registered 34 goal involvements in 35 previous appearances versus his former Madrid rivals, and Sevilla are the only team which Ronaldo has scored more goals against (27) other than Atlético (25).

de Gea returned to his hometown and boyhood club, 11 years after completing a move from Atlético to Old Trafford as a 20 year-old.

Fred replaced the ill McTominay while Varane returned to the lineup with Lindelöf deputising for Wan-Bissaka at right-back. Rashford started over Elanga.

Atléti captain Koke was ruled out of the first leg with a thigh injury, while Yannick Carrasco missed the tie through suspension. Luis Suarez was named on the bench by Simeone.

Lindelöf made a crucial intervention early on to block a José Giménez shot in the third minute. Within seven minutes a Portuguese striker was on the scoresheet, but it was not Ronaldo. Atlético drew first blood through a Joao Felix diving header, with Maguire nowhere near his man.

Atlético kept United quiet for much of the first period, with the reigning Spanish champions by far the better of the two teams. United did not manage a shot on goal in the first half, with Ronaldo shooting wide of the target on 37 minutes.

Varane had a brainless moment on half an hour, first conceding possession and then conceding a foul just outside United's penalty area, much to the enjoyment of the home fans. Atléti were inches from being two to the good on the cusp of half-time, when Sime Vrsaljko headed the ball into Lindelöf's face and ricocheted off the frame of the goal.

The home side continued as they meant to go on in the early stages of the second half, creating several chances but failing to test de Gea in the United goal.

The loudest jeers came towards 80 minutes when Ronaldo blasted a free-kick over the target and into the stands flashing red and white. Barely a minute later United found their much sought-after goal, with their first attempt on target all night.

Made possible by terrific build-up play involving Fred and Ronaldo, Fernandes played in Elanga and the Sweden U-21 international made no mistake to draw level for United, gliding the ball past Jan Oblak. In doing so, Elanga became the club's youngest goalscorer in the Champions League knockouts, at the age of 19 years and 302 days.

Antoine Griezmann had the chance to win it for Atlético late on, but the France international struck the crossbar on 87 minutes with de Gea rooted to the spot.

United’s last hope of silverware lies with the most prolific competition in club football, and it is all to play for in the second leg at Old Trafford on 15 March.

F/T Atlético Madrid 1 - 1 Man Utd

United's last fixture of February came at home to relegation-threatened Watford. The reverse fixture in November ended 4-1 in favour of the Hornets, which spelt the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's ill-fated reign as United manager.

Wan-Bissaka returned to the starting XI, with Maguire making way for a centre-back partnership of Varane and Lindelöf whilst Fernandes assumed captaincy duties. Nemanja Matić made his third league start of the year, with McTominay still out ill.

Matić was arguably United's best performer on the day, putting in a mega shift in the centre of the park. On the contrary, Ronaldo endured an afternoon to forget and his misfortunes began very early on Saturday afternoon.

The United no.7 hit the post in the first five minutes versus Watford, and the wasted opportunity appeared to play on Ronaldo’s mind for the duration of the contest. The Portugal forward did find the net on 15 minutes but was flagged offside.

In between Ronaldo's two early chances, Fernandes scuffed a 1-on-1 effort against former United goalie Ben Foster. Fernandes had a couple more chances to open the scoring but his first attempt went wide of the mark before a headed effort went over the goal. Later on, Fernandes’ shot was inadvertently blocked by teammate Ronaldo.

Despite United creating an array of quality chances in the opening half, it was the poor finishing that let them down. United did not have a goal to show for their efforts and the teams reached half-time with the deadlock yet to be broken.

In the second, Elanga was presented with a golden chance after superb play involving himself, Fred and Pogba, but the United starlet could not manage to keep his shot on target.

Two more goalscoring opportunities fell the way of Ronaldo, with both cleared within four yards of the goalline.

Sancho entered the fray for Fred after an hour had passed, before Telles and Matić made way for Shaw and Rashford 10 minutes later. Sancho had a chance to win it at the death, but his curling effort did not have enough dip on it.

Only Leeds and Norwich have conceded more Premier League goals this season than Watford, yet United were left perplexed as to how they failed to score against a team one point off the foot of the table.

The game ended goalless, meaning United have taken a solitary point from six against a club who look more than likely to play Championship football come next season.

F/T Man Utd 0 - 0 Watford

In addition to underwhelming results to lowly Watford, Man United have also taken one point out of six from Aston Villa and Wolves, and two out of six versus Southampton. These are all inferior teams against whom Man United should be winning both home and away.

United's top four chances are fading away game by game, and based on February alone United are undeserving of Champions League qualification for next season. Arsenal sit two points shy of 4th-placed United, albeit the Gunners have three games in hand over the Red Devils.

A challenging month awaits Rangnick and his troops, in what will most certainly make or break United's miserable season.

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