Ronaldo rescues Man United (again)
With Manchester United set to appoint a new manager ahead of next season, the yet-to-be named incumbent already has an array of problems on his hands.
Long gone are the days when players joined Man United for the pride and prestige of representing the badge. Nowadays United is viewed more as the destination for an easy ride and a fat pay check. One would need just a single hand when counting the current squad members committed to playing for United, and a mass exodus is urgently needed in the upcoming summer.
The quartet of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani, and Juan Mata are all but certain to leave the club with the end of their contracts approaching but the clear-out needs to go far beyond those whose deals expire on June 30. Last week Nemanja Matić confirmed this is to be his last season as a United player after five years at Old Trafford.
Bruno Fernandes penned a contract extension after the recent international break, with the 27-year-old midfielder set to remain at the club until 2027.
The futures of players such as Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek, Eric Bailly, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Dean Henderson and Phil Jones should all be seriously considered by the club, and a handful of players’ futures may hinge on the identity of the next manager which is likely to be Erik ten Hag.
Martial and van de Beek completed loan moves in January while Henderson, Bailly and Jones have amassed a joint 307 minutes in the Premier League this season. Wan-Bissaka has fallen below Diogo Dalot in the pecking order, and Matić (34 in August) no longer has the legs to play for longer than 30 minutes.
What was supposed to be a title-challenging season continues to spiral downhill for United. Their top-four hopes have been dealt multiple blows in recent weeks, and the lowly Europa Conference League could well be on the menu in 2022/23.
Should it happen that United have to settle for the Europa [Conference] League – or even no European football whatsoever – next season, some high-profile names may also contemplate their immediate futures with the club. Cristiano Ronaldo is a five-time UCL winner and, now into his 38th year, he might not stick around if the Red Devils are not competing in Europe's elite.
Needless to say the current United team is better-suited to Europa League football than the Champions League, but it would not be a complete disaster if the club were to completely miss out on Europe next season. Arsenal have benefited from not playing European football this season and now with an improved squad compared to a year ago, Mikel Arteta's could be rewarded with UCL football next season. Just like Arsenal underwent a squad revamp, United too need to clear the decks.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick is expected to remain at the club in an advisory role once this season ends. Since Rangnick’s arrival at the back end of last year United have won 10 of 23 games across three competitions under the German. United have two wins in their last eight games (all comps) and are three points shy of 4th-placed Tottenham. Arsenal are level on points with United and have a game in hand.
United have won less than half of their 32 league matches this term with 15 wins, eight draws and nine defeats. Another underwhelming statistic shows that of the teams currently in the top half of the Premier League table, only Leicester City have conceded more goals (50) than United have (44). That is more than title contenders Liverpool and Manchester City have let in, combined (22 and 20, respectively).
As United prepare to visit Anfield on Tuesday, Rangnick and Jürgen Klopp will share a pitch for a 14th time but this will not be the first that the two German coaches oppose one another in the greatest rivalry in the land. Their last rendezvous came 11 years ago in the DFL-Supercup as Rangnick’s Schalke conquered Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in Der Klassiker derby. Of their 13 previous meetings, Rangnick has won six and lost just twice to a team managed by countryman Klopp.
Their forthcoming meeting could yet be one of, if not the most important to date. Liverpool are after maximum points for the 11th time in 12 games and are chasing an unprecedented quadruple trophy haul, while United will take any points they can get as they try salvage a top-seven place for European football next season.
United’s first fixture following the first international break of the year came at home to Leicester. Harry Maguire made the headlines after he was booed at Wembley whilst playing for England, and he had a point to prove against his former club Leicester.
Rangnick made a tweak to the backline by accommodating Maguire as the right-sided centre-back and slotting Raphaël Varane to Maguire’s left. Luke Shaw came in for Alex Telles and Scott McTominay replaced Matić. Fernandes filled in for Ronaldo while Anthony Elanga started over Marcus Rashford.
The first half ended goalless with the Foxes failing to register a shot on target. United’s best chance of the opening 45 came through Fernandes but the Portuguese could not place his shot either side of Kasper Schmeichel, who kept out the soft attempt away with an outstretched left leg.
The visitors went ahead on 63 minutes through Kelechi Iheanacho. Fernandes was dispossessed by Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall on the halfway line, teeing up James Maddison to deliver a sumptuous ball for Iheanacho to nod Brendan Rodgers’ side into the lead.
United responded within five minutes of going behind as Fred restored parity after combining with Fernandes. Schmeichel parried Fernandes’ low shot but Fred was on hand to blast the rebound into the roof of the net.
David de Gea produced a fingertip save to deny Wesley Fofana's header from Maddison's free-kick. Maddison put the Foxes in front once again but the goal was disallowed for a foul by Iheanacho on Varane in the build-up. Leicester looked the likeliest to score late on but the contest ended all square. The Foxes are now unbeaten in their last five meetings with United.
F/T Man United 1 - 1 Leicester City
For United's trip to Everton, Telles returned to the line-up for Shaw, Wan-Bissaka earned a rare start over Dalot, and Victor Lindelöf took the place of the injured Varane. Rashford reclaimed his starting spot from Elanga, Ronaldo returned at the expense of Pogba, and Matić took the spot of McTominay.
Rashford tested Jordan Pickford early on but the England 'keeper kept his international teammate at bay, and it was the hosts who took the lead after 27 minutes via Anthony Gordon. Matić conceded possession inside Everton's half as Allan and Gordon generated the counter-attack. Richarlison glided past Wan-Bissaka before Alex Iwobi put it on a plate for Gordon to tuck the ball away from the edge of United's penalty area, featuring a deflection by Maguire, as Goodison Park erupted.
United failed to convert their chances meanwhile at the other end de Gea touched Richarlison's effort over the bar minutes before the half-time whistle. In the second period Maguire was again in the thick of the action, giving away possession within 20 yards of the United goal but Wan-Bissaka cleared his lines to avoid Frank Lampard's side doubling their advantage.
United had a handful of chances to claw back into the game but the home side managed to fend them off. It was a sweet victory for the Toffees while United's frustrations were exacerbated. This was just a second win in eight league games for Everton.
F/T Everton 1 - 0 Man United
This was not the first nor the second occurrence in recent times that United have suffered a damaging defeat at Everton in the month of April. The Reds lost 0-2 on Easter Sunday 2014 in what proved to be the final chapter of David Moyes’ managerial career at Old Trafford. 12 months later United went 0-3 down to the Toffees with Louis van Gaal still coming to grips with English football.
On Easter Sunday 2019, United were thumped 4-0 at Goodison Park after which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer famously told the media he would be successful as United manager and that certain players would not remain at the club to enjoy that success. Solskjaer won zero trophies as United boss, and of the 11 starters that day only two have left the club since.
In United's latest instalment the quintet of Fred, McTominay, Shaw, Varane, and Cavani were all ruled out of the home fixture with Norwich City. Pogba started over Fred while Jesse Lingard came in for Matić for the Englishman's second league start of the season. Dalot was restored into the XI for Wan-Bissaka, and Elanga was recalled for Rashford.
de Gea crucially intervened Pukki's goal-bound shot at 0-0 after the Finnish striker breached his marker Telles. Soon after that Elanga pressed high and dispossessed Ben Gibson in the Norwich penalty area, providing Ronaldo with the easiest of tap-ins to gift United a much sought-after lead. This was only the fourth time this season United have scored inside the opening 15 minutes.
An undisclosed number of protestors would have missed the opening goal as they boycotted the opening 17 minutes of the game in recognition of the Glazers' 17-year ownership of the club. One day prior to the match, supporters protested at the club's Carrington training complex.
Lingard was lively in the attacking third but it was Ronaldo who doubled United’s advantage with a header from Telles’ corner, just the third time United have scored from a set-piece this season. Norwich pulled one back shortly before half-time, through Kieran Dowell, and they drew level seven minutes after the break as Pukki broke free from both Telles and Maguire and slotted in off de Gea's near-post.
United became increasingly clumsy and complacent on and off the ball, leaving de Gea vulnerable on multiple occasions. Elanga won a foul inside 25 yards of the Norwich goal with a quarter of an hour to go, and Ronaldo fired in the free-kick as Tim Krul got a glove to it but could not keep it out. The Stretford End embraced what was Ronaldo's 50th hat-trick at club level and 60th overall, as the Portuguese bagged back-to-back hat-tricks at Old Trafford after his triple against Tottenham last month.
Not for the first time, Ronaldo's heroics were enough to secure all the points for United.
F/T Man United 3 - 2 Norwich City
Next up for United is a crucial trip to Merseyside to face Premier League title contenders and FA Cup finalists Liverpool. After his side’s slender win over Norwich, Rangnick noted that United urgently need to up the ante if they are to come away with at least a point from Anfield.
Man United upcoming fixtures:
19 April - Liverpool (A)
23 April - Arsenal (A)
28 April - Chelsea (H)
2 May - Brentford (H)
7 May - Brighton (A)
22 May - Crystal Palace (A)