City steam ahead to Wembley date, leaving United and Woodward in the waiting room

By Sports Desk January 29, 2020

Wednesday in Manchester, and as one institution reaches the end of the line, another was supposedly hurtling towards the buffers.

After years of letting down customers, providing pathetic value for money, laughable reliability and plummeting towards national laughing stock status, Manchester United and the humiliated rail franchisee Northern should probably compare notes.

As the UK government effectively brought Northern's journey to an end, a thought came to mind: there's another faltering institution that might benefit from nationalisation.

The Glazer family's ownership of United reached a nadir - its latest nadir - on Tuesday when the unpopular executive-vice chairman Ed Woodward saw his home apparently attacked by thugs, who through some perverse logic felt they were doing the right thing for their favourite football club.

If he won't go willingly, so their theory probably went, we'll drive him out through force. The theory is absurd, as Gary Neville reasoned before the latest Manchester derby, telling Sky Sports the images of violence at Woodward's home were "unfortunate", stressing: "People's families shouldn't be attacked through sport or through football."

But Neville is also fed up: fed up of waiting, fearful the old express train is being shunted towards the scrap yard by owners who care about only one thing.

The former United captain warned the protests are "going to get worse", said supporters are "absolutely disgusted" with the regression of the team, and spoke of simmering tensions coming to the boil.

The mayors of Liverpool and Manchester spoke earlier in the day of "almost two years of misery and mayhem" for train passengers, but United supporters, such as Neville, would tell you their suffering has gone on for longer.

United, so everyone says, would be better off in someone else's hands. Almost anyone but the Glazers and Woodward would appease supporters who have had to put up with ... only winning eight Premier League titles this century.

This sob story has to be put into some sort of added context though, and in the second leg of the EFL Cup semi-final at the Etihad Stadium an embattled United side showed they are not resigned to rotting in the sidings while Manchester City have the run of things.

United in January 2020 are not yet a lost cause. They sit fifth in the Premier League, have Europa League knockout football to come, and Bruno Fernandes is arriving: hailed as a saviour before he has kicked a ball or even signed his contract. No pressure then.

Fifteen miles from Old Trafford stands Gigg Lane, Bury, a stadium which used to stage lower-league football and United's reserve games but this season is staging nothing, the local team having been expelled from the English Football League in August amid a financial crisis. Fans there are bereft. Never mind nationalising a club, how about rationalising the crumbling of such a totem of that town to faultless supporters who, according to local MP James Daly, are now experiencing "increased social isolation".

Bury fans have been silenced, but United's thousands found their voice when, after 35 minutes of withstanding almost incessant City pressure at the Etihad Stadium, they snatched the lead with a swish of Nemanja Matic's left boot as the ball whistled past Claudio Bravo.

Never mind that they managed just one shot to City's nine, United led at half-time and were back to 3-2 behind on aggregate. Waiting on the platform for the late arrival of any sort of footballing gratification, of course those in United's ranks relished the moment.

Normal service would surely be restored in the second half, yet City wanted to walk it in. Raheem Sterling was ponderous when he should have been punishing, and goodness knows how City failed to score when Harry Maguire gave the ball away on the edge of the six-yard box.

United then lost a key component of their midfield rolling stock, Matic seeing a second yellow and a red for a reckless shove, and yet Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team still pushed for a goal to level the tie.

It was unsurprisingly beyond them, Pep Guardiola's City earning a ticket to Wembley to face Aston Villa on March 1.

Still, the United fans applauded and the players in red returned the compliment.

Solskjaer smiled, and Woodward, the unpopular station master, shook hands and exchanged well wishes with City counterparts in the directors' box.

Another chance of a trophy slipped by, on one of those nights when you paused to wonder if United might be back on track sooner than we thought.

There have been plenty of those before though, red herrings for Red Devils.

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  • Talking Point: Thiago's instant impact at Liverpool Talking Point: Thiago's instant impact at Liverpool

    It did not take long for Thiago Alcantara to show the Premier League exactly what he can do on his Liverpool debut.

    The new Reds midfielder, signed just two days before the trip to Chelsea, came off the bench at half-time at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

    Champions Liverpool ran out 2-0 winners against the Blues' 10 men, with Thiago quickly finding his passing rhythm in the centre of the pitch.

    Opta shared after the match that Thiago had completed 74 passes, more than any other Premier League star when playing a half or less since detailed passing data began in 2003-04.

    But there was more to the former Bayern Munich man's bow than that one statistic, as Opta's advanced metrics allow us to explore...

    STANDOUT STAT TOPS SCHOLES

    The list of other players to have managed 60 or more passes in 45 minutes or fewer in the Premier League shows just how impressive Thiago's achievement was.

    Andreas Christensen (66 passes) - for Chelsea against Sheffield United in July - is perhaps a slight surprise in second place, as is Jose Fonte (62) - for Southampton against Bournemouth in 2015 - in third. But the rest of the names in this elite group are far more predictable.

    Paul Pogba is one of three players to have tallied 61 successful passes in such a cameo, doing so after replacing Scott McTominay in Manchester United's 4-1 win over Newcastle United on Boxing Day last year.

    The other two stars to reach the number did so in quite staggering circumstances, meanwhile.

    Yaya Toure and Paul Scholes each totalled 61 passes in significantly less than a half, the Manchester City man incredibly playing only the final 17 minutes of a 7-2 win at home to Stoke City in 2017.

    United pass master Scholes was on the pitch for a little longer - 28 minutes - as he helped Alex Ferguson's side to clinch a record-breaking 19th title at Blackburn Rovers in 2011.

    Coincidentally, as City stole that crown 12 months later, Toure played 60 passes in the first half against Queens Park Rangers despite battling a hamstring injury.

    Thiago's feat, while perhaps not quite as impressive as Toure's or Scholes', puts him in esteemed company just 45 minutes into his Premier League career.

     

    ALREADY LEADING LIVERPOOL

    That final tally of 74 successful passes from 82 attempts was more than any Chelsea player managed in the entire 90 minutes on Sunday. But some of Thiago's numbers also led a dominant Liverpool team.

    The Spain international attempted 63 passes in the opposition half and completed 56 - both numbers were the most of any individual at Stamford Bridge.

    The contrast from the first half with captain Jordan Henderson was evident, as the man Thiago replaced attempted 24 passes in this regard and completed just 16 - albeit one failed effort prompted Christensen's red card.

    Henderson and 86th-minute substitute Takumi Minamino were the only visiting players not to complete 20 passes in the Chelsea half, while Mateo Kovacic - 14 of 16 attempts successful in Liverpool's half - was some way short as the hosts' top performer.

    No team-mate could rival Thiago, though.

    NO GOALS, NO ASSISTS, NO PROBLEM

    Despite his control of the game, Thiago's passes were unlikely to appear on highlight reels of the Liverpool victory. Yet Jurgen Klopp knew what he was getting.

    "I liked it, I liked his game a lot," the manager told Sky Sports. "Defensively was tricky for him because we set it up differently, but offensively, with the ball, yeah, that's him. He wants to pass the ball."

    Goals and assists are not really Thiago's game. He trailed Henderson in both regards in his final season in Germany.

    But the midfielder is found at the heart of almost any move, having been involved in 141 sequences that led to a shot for Bayern last term.

    Thiago played a part in the build-up to five open-play shots on Sunday, including the first goal as he traded passes with Sadio Mane and then pushed the ball on for Naby Keita to switch the attack to the right flank.

    Indeed, no player made more forward passes in the opposition half than Thiago's 25, while the variety of his balls opened up the pitch as he completed a game-high 10 long passes.

    Liverpool fans will now be relishing the opportunity to see what their new man is capable of over a full 90 minutes - potentially starting against Arsenal on Monday.

  • Sevilla v Bayern Munich: The match that began Maradona's ill-fated Spain return Sevilla v Bayern Munich: The match that began Maradona's ill-fated Spain return

    It is Monday September 28, 1992, and Sevilla's Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan is the location of a media circus rarely seen before or since in the stadium. Bavarian giants Bayern Munich are in town for a hastily arranged friendly.

    Aside from the two teams' meeting in the UEFA Super Cup on Thursday and a Champions League quarter-final tie in 2018, this friendly 28 years ago is the only previous occasion in which Sevilla faced their illustrious German visitors.

    Yet, Bayern were not the focus of the media attention. No, they were there for the first game of Diego Maradona's return to Spain.

    The world's most renowned footballer - formerly of Barcelona - was barely given enough space to take part in the coin toss such was the scrum around him, with microphones and cameras shoved towards his face with little regard by voracious reporters.

     

    STILL THE BEST

    Maradona, wearing the captain's armband, was making his comeback from a 15-month ban for cocaine use which ultimately ended his love affair with Napoli.

    From midfield, the 31-year-old dictated the tempo and stretched Bayern's defence with his imaginative passing. He, Diego Simeone and Rafa Paz combined excellently in the middle, while an understanding with a young Davor Suker showed evidence of promise.

    Maradona forced goalkeeper Raimond Aumann into a smart early save before hitting the crossbar with an audacious free-kick from near the corner flag.

    Out of shape, unfit and without competitive football in over a year, Maradona was still the best player on the pitch, setting up Suker before also playing a key role in one of Monchu's goals. Sevilla won 3-1.

    His weight was mocked by a banner depicting a Maradona caricature whose belly could not be contained by his jersey, but, his "cosmic barrel" physique aside, this was the same player who had astonished with Napoli and Argentina.

     

    REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD

    His move to Andalusia meant a reunion with Argentina's 1986 World Cup-winning coach – and close friend – Carlos Bilardo.

    Bilardo called the signing a "gift", while Maradona said his "happiness is complete" upon arrival at Seville's San Pablo airport in a striking cerise suit – "I looked a treat," he concluded about his fashion sense.

    Having lost Ivan Zamorano to Real Madrid, Sevilla president Luis Cuervas and vice-president Jose Maria del Nido will have been looking on, certain they had pulled off a masterstroke by getting Maradona in as a replacement, reportedly boosting season ticket subscriptions from 26,000 to 40,000.

    His performances continued to excite in competitive games and he enjoyed what many consider to be his best display in Spain during an ill-tempered 2-0 win over Real Madrid on December 19.

    Madrid, complete with the likes of Manolo Sanchis, Fernando Hierro, Michel and Luis Enrique, simply had no answer as Maradona ran the show. Everything was going as well as it could have, until things – somewhat inevitably – turned ugly in the second half of the season.

     

    THE FALLOUT

    A dispute over El Diego's juggling of international and club commitments saw the two parties at loggerheads, but things got out of control late in the campaign.

    After being given painkilling injections against his will for a persistent injury caused by receiving a kick from an angry Venezuela fan in 1985, Maradona was withdrawn by Bilardo early in the second half of a 1-1 draw with Real Burgos and he blew his top.

    "Bilardo, you m***********," he claimed to yell in his coach's direction, with the pair coming to blows a day later, as detailed in the troubled star's autobiography.

    What made the situation worse for Maradona was Sevilla's chiefs revealed to him just a few days earlier their plan to offer him a player-coach role after ditching Bilardo. They received a stern refusal in reply, with El Diego not about to betray his friend, but he ultimately felt as though such loyalty was not reciprocated.

    Everyone wanted out of the marriage, and Del Nido's public comments about Maradona's fitness proved the final straw.

    "That's probably why that w***** Del Nido dared to say I wasn't even fit enough to play table tennis; to make me leave," Maradona wrote in his autobiography. "He knew I wouldn't put up with that kind of stuff. And that's how it happened, that was how my story with Sevilla ended. Badly."

    Maradona then missed out on £625,000 worth of unpaid wages as Sevilla withheld payment because he had "not met obligations to the club", bringing a bitter close to a chapter which had promised so much on a thrilling evening against Bayern.

  • Rumour Has It: Dest turns down Bayern for Barca, Spurs making Skriniar move Rumour Has It: Dest turns down Bayern for Barca, Spurs making Skriniar move

    Bayern Munich or Barcelona?

    Two of the world's biggest clubs are going head-to-head for Ajax sensation Sergino Dest.

    And the club from LaLiga are reportedly favourites to land the teenager.

     

    TOP STORY – DEST WANTS BARCA

    Ajax full-back Sergino Dest has pushed aside an offer from Bundesliga and Champions League holders Bayern Munich as he looks to join Barcelona, according to Sport.

    Bayern and LaLiga giants Barca are both interested in the 19-year-old United States international.

    But Dest has his heart set on Barca, where a principle agreement is reportedly in place between the player and Ajax.

     

    ROUND-UP

    Tottenham and Inter are in talks regarding centre-back Milan Skriniar, reports Sky Sport Italia. Skriniar is wanted by Jose Mourinho's Spurs but the Premier League club are unwilling to match Inter's £55million (€60m) valuation. Benfica's Ruben Dias remains a serious alternative.

    - Diario AS claims Real Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez is wanted by Serie A trio Napoli, Roma and Milan.

    - The same outlet also reports that Manchester United and Arsenal are two possible destinations for out-of-favour Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti. Former club Lyon, Rennes and Inter have also been linked.

    Aston Villa are eyeing Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley on loan, according to the Telegraph. Barkley is down the pecking order at Stamford Bridge.

    - Kicker says Barca and Roma have joined Paris Saint-Germain in looking at Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, who looks set to leave London.

    Manchester City are still pursuing Atletico Madrid's Jose Gimenez, says the Daily Star. An alternative to Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly, City's interest in Gimenez could be scuppered as the Uruguay international isolates and recovers from coronavirus.

    - Despite already signing Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi, Le10 Sport claims David Beckham's Inter Miami remain keen on free agent Edinson Cavani. However, the former PSG forward is still hoping to remain in Europe.

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