EPL

Big zero six: Man Utd cannot win the title if they don't start scoring against the best

By Sports Desk February 28, 2021

There was an enticing Italian appetiser to Chelsea and Manchester United's lukewarm main course on Sunday.

Antonio Conte's Inter stretched their lead at the top of Serie A to seven points, beating Genoa 3-0 at San Siro thanks to goals from three former United players. They've now won 14 of their previous 17 league games and failed to score just once in that run. They will more than likely become champions for the first time since 2010 under Jose Mourinho, the last manager to deliver trophies at United and the most successful modern coach Chelsea have had.

Assessing the match at Stamford Bridge through the lens of another game in another country probably tells you enough about the quality of the contest.

With Leicester City having lost to Arsenal and Manchester City beating West Ham, this was a chance for United to consolidate second place in the table, and just maybe keep their title hopes from sputtering into ash. For Chelsea, earlier results meant this represented an opening into the top four and a means to close the gap to the Red Devils to three points, all while prolonging the Thomas Tuchel unbeaten streak to nine games.

They may not sound like the loftiest of ambitions, but this was not a game of ambition, or excitement, or precision. It was the coronavirus football calendar made flesh: frenetic, apprehensive, with a permeating feeling that things would, eventually, get better.

That Inter reference was not meant as a 'what if'. Conte's time at Chelsea was a success but the relationship had soured long before they parted ways. As for United, nobody could honestly claim they should have kept Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez, scorers of Inter's second and third goals. And while Romelu Lukaku continues to rampage through Serie A defences, United have become leading goalscorers in the Premier League this season without their old number nine, who had wanted to leave anyway.

Still, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, United have swapped potency for pragmatism when it comes to facing the 'big six'. It's made for soporific viewing: 0-0 twice against Chelsea, 0-1 and 0-0 against Arsenal, 0-0 against Liverpool, 0-0 and 0-2 (in the EFL Cup) against City. All their previous four such games have ended goalless. At least that 6-1 battering at home to Tottenham in October saw them score a penalty.

Solskjaer highlighted the need for more in "tighter games" in the build-up, but his message – and Tuchel's – was still contain first and attack later. Marcus Rashford's whirligig of a free-kick was as close to a goal as they came in the first half, beyond a penalty shout for a Callum Hudson-Odoi handball. Chelsea were scarcely more enterprising, but at least Olivier Giroud was a centimetre or two of scalp from heading a Hudson-Odoi cross on target.

There were flashes after the break. Mason Greenwood cracked a shot narrowly over, Scott McTominay planted one in Edouard Mendy's midriff, a curling right-foot shot from Fred drew an amused thumbs-up from his manager. At least he was smiling; even a grin seems beyond Anthony Martial at the moment, the striker touching the ball six times in his 11 minutes on the pitch.

Perhaps a goalless draw really was Solskjaer's plan all along: perhaps even the baby-faced assassin accepts City have long since killed the title competition. In that sense, moving a point above Leicester, maintaining the gap to Chelsea and stretching the club-record unbeaten away run to 20 league games is no disaster.

But is this the way to win titles again? The way to get at City at the Etihad Stadium next week? The so-called United Way?

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  • Prince, Leon on target as reigning Olympic champions Canada blank Reggae Girlz 2-0 in first-leg playoff Prince, Leon on target as reigning Olympic champions Canada blank Reggae Girlz 2-0 in first-leg playoff

    Jamaica...0

    Canada...2

    Prince (18th), Leon (90+2)

    Jamaica's senior Reggae Girlz dreams of an historic Olympic Games qualification is all but up in smoke, as they suffered a 0-2 defeat to Canada in their first-leg playoff encounter at the National Stadium on Friday. 

    Goals from Nichelle Prince in the 18th and the menacing Adriana Leon in the 90+2 minutes was enough to lift the Bev Priestman-coached reigning Olympic champions to a crucial advantage heading into Tuesday's second leg which will be played before a sold-out crowd at BMO Field in Toronto.

    For Lorne Donaldson and his Girlz it will be a case of pulling off the improbable win in a hostile environment, if they are to progress.

    The Girlz started out fairly disciplined, as they were quick on the ball and did well to contain Canada in the early exchanges. 

    In fact, the Girlz looked more threatening in opening play, but their first real chance in the final third came from Deneisha Blackwood’s teasing 10th-minute free kick, which had to be mopped up by the Canadian defenders. 

    Such was the Girlz discipline when they gradually gained the ascendancy that Canada was hardly allowed to play their usual fluent passing game to get into the final third.

    Instead, they were on the back foot and almost found themselves a goal down in the 14th minute. This, as Jody Brown was sent on the break by Atlanta Primus, but the diminutive forward’s shot was charged down by a defender. 

    All the Reggae Girlz hard work was undone in the 18th when poor positioning by Blackwood allowed Ashley Lawrence to slip further down the right channel and deliver a weighted cross, which was expertly headed in by Prince, giving Rebecca Spencer no chance at a save.

    Still, the Girlz fought on and again went close in the 29th courtesy of Brown, who orchestrated a tidy build up and picked out Cheyna Matthews on the left, but the run amounted to nothing.

    Matthews again went on the break five minutes later, as she shook her defender and should have initially struck a left footer, but was hesitant in doing so. When she belatedly got a shot off her favoured right foot, her marker had already recovered and averted the danger.

    Though the score remained unchanged at half-time, the Jamaicans seemingly failed to recover from the manner in which they ended the first half. A defensive lapse immediately on the resumption allowed Leon through on goal and it took a tidy save from Spencer to deny her.

    Canada again went close from the resulting corner with Prince's effort from the top of the 18-yard box rattling the crossbar. 

    By virtue of pushing a high line in their probe for the equalizer, the Girlz absorbed some amount of pressure from Canada's break, as Leon got by Konya Plummer a couple of times but found Spencer in her way.

    The Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper did her utmost best to keep the Girlz in the game as she was again called upon when Cloe Lacasse got away down the left channel in the 64th and struck a left-footed effort which Spencer had to parry at her near post.

    The Girlz had their best chance of the second half a minute later when substitute Tiffany Cameron’s shot from a rebound went just over the crossbar, after Khadija “Bunny” Shaw's initial effort was thwarted by Vanessa Gilles. 

    But just when the moderate turnout in the stadium may have harboured a glimmer of hope that the Girlz would pull one back, Leon broke their hearts with a cheeky finish at Spencer’s near post from a Julia Grosso cross to put Canada 2-0 up.

    Despite being down, the Jamaicans continued the push to at least reduce the deficit, but when Plummer fired a tame left-footed effort straight at Canada’s goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, deep inside added time, it all but summed up their lukewarm evening.

    Teams: Jamaica -Rebecca Spencer, Allyson Swaby, Konya Plummer, Tiernny Wiltshire, Deneisha Blackwood, Vyan Sampson, Drew Spence, Jody Brown (Solai Washington 55th), Atlanta Primus (Kayla McKenna 71st), Cheyna Matthews (Tiffany Cameron 55th), Khadija Shaw

    Subs not used: Sydney Schneider, Liya Brooks, Sashana Campbell, Chantelle Swaby, Kameron Simmonds, Olufolasade Adamolekun, Trudi Carter, Shaneil Buckley, Paige Bailey-Gayle

    Booked: None

    Canada -Kailen Sheridan, Sydney Collins, Kadeisha Buchanan, Rebecca Quinn, Ashley Lawrence (Gabby Carle 82nd), Vanessa Gilles, Nichelle Prince (Jordyn Huitema 64th), Jessie Fleming (Julia Grosso 79th), Adriana Leon, Cloe Lacasse, Jade Rose (Shelina Zadorsky 79th)

    Subs not used: Lysianne Proulx, Sabrina D'Angelo, Olivia Smith, Marie-Yasmine Alidou, Evelyne Viens, Christine Sinclair, Simi Awujo, Bianca St-Georges 

    Booked: Gillies (54th), Grosso (90+5)

    Referee: Ekaterina Koroleva (USA)

    Assistant referees: Kathryn Nesbitt (USA); Felisha Mariscal (USA)

    Fourth official: Natalie Simon (USA)

    Match Commissary: Techell McLean (SKN)

  • Erik ten Hag seeking solution to Manchester United’s defensive dilemma Erik ten Hag seeking solution to Manchester United’s defensive dilemma

    Erik ten Hag admits he is at a loss to explain Manchester United’s poor defensive performances.

    The Red Devils have conceded 14 goals in their last five games and 10 in the last three, with three goals against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday not enough even to earn them a point.

    United boss Ten Hag said: “We have shown that we can do it because last year we had the most clean sheets in the Premier League because of the team, because we defended very good as a team, so we have to get back to that standard.

    “Of course I am pushing the team and demanding from the team, and from the start of the season, but they are human beings, not robots, so, why they are not doing it, I try to find out and I try to give the solutions and try to motivate the players to do the job.

    “When you are in a period like we are in always as a manager you are asking yourself these questions. My job is to get them to do the job.”

    On United’s tendency to concede goals soon after a restart, Ten Hag added: “(We’re) not concerned but we are aware of it. Of course you can’t close your eyes for things like this so we coach the players, we coach the team in that fact.”

    Question marks have been raised about the attitude of United’s squad, with clips from the Bayern game apparently showing players not chasing back as hard as they might.

    Ten Hag does not believe a lack of willingness was to blame, though, saying: “It’s always a concern when we didn’t run but I think against Bayern it was not the case.

    “In certain situations yes so it’s also to recognise in which situation is it about they didn’t recognise it and didn’t make the right decisions or is it about willingness?

    “Against Spurs, we didn’t run too much. But I think against Bayern we did our best from physical outputs but we didn’t always run in the right moment.

    “If we bounced back like we did in Munich, you can’t say the spirit isn’t right. I think we have other problems than that.”

  • Ange Postecoglou points out the differences between himself and Mikel Arteta Ange Postecoglou points out the differences between himself and Mikel Arteta

    Tottenham head coach Ange Postecoglou is full of admiration for Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta, but fails to see many similarities between the pair.

    Postecoglou’s youthful Spurs side face the biggest test of his early reign on Sunday when they make the short trip to the Emirates for the first north London derby of the season.

    Second-placed Tottenham travel across the capital in high spirits but face an Arsenal team that are into a fifth season under Arteta, who also took over a club in the doldrums and has overseen a cultural change from top to bottom.

    While Postecoglou is at the start of the same type of rebuilding job at Spurs, he poked fun at suggestions he is alike his 41-year-old opposite number.

    He said: “I think Mikel has been outstanding, really strong right from the start by having a real vision for the football club and the club’s backed him, but I don’t think that’s unique.

    “I think Liverpool did the same with Jurgen (Klopp). Most clubs that end up having a successful period do it on the back of having a really clear idea of what they’re trying to create.

    “The only problem is that a lot of clubs jump at shadows at the first sign of things not progressing at the rate they were hoping to. Credit to Arsenal and credit to Mikel that they backed each other and they’re reaping the rewards of it but that’s not a blueprint for us to follow.

    “We’ve got our own blueprint. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s timescale, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s processes. What you’ve got to do is have a clear idea about what you want and provided along the way you see progress, stick to it.

    “In terms of similarities, I’m 58, he’s whatever (41). I’ve had 26 years, he’s five years into it. He’s managed in one country, I’ve managed in a few. I’m not sure how he’s got a great head of hair!

    “He’s a lot fitter than I am. I don’t know, there’s not a lot of threads I can sort of join between us. I wouldn’t say we’re opposites.

    “We’re different. Even in the way his team plays. Yes he does have a very attacking philosophy but it’s different from mine and that’s the beauty of the game. That’s what you love about it.

    “It’s why you can’t copy. If you’re an artist and you see a Picasso, yeah you can copy it, but it’s not going to be a Picasso is it? It’s the same with football.

    “You can see that somebody does something really well, but don’t bring your own personality into it. I have great admiration for the way he’s gone about things and how he’s stuck to his beliefs. It’s a credit to him.”

    Postecoglou did not claim to have any type of personal relationship with Arteta, but he did reveal a time when he got to view the Spaniard up close.

    The former Celtic boss watched Manchester City training not long after he was appointed manager at Yokohama, who are part-owned by the City Football Group.

    “I spent a week at City when I first got the Yokohama job because they were part of the group and were generous enough to invite me in,” he revealed.

    “I didn’t speak to anyone but I observed training and you could see then how passionate Mikel was about the game and that he was itching to get going and become a manager himself.

    “He’s had a different journey but he’s made the impact.

    “As I keep saying, there’s no real defined way to get here.”

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