Saturday 10 December 2016

10 things Man United fans might not have imagined happening earlier this season

Published 13/04/2015 | 11:18

Chris Smalling celebrates scoring Manchester United's fourth goal against Manchester City at Old Trafford.
Chris Smalling celebrates scoring Manchester United's fourth goal against Manchester City at Old Trafford.

In a topsy-turvy first season in charge for Louis van Gaal, Manchester United still harbour title aspirations after defeating neighbours City in what has been a roller-coaster campaign.

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After a huge outlay on reinforcements in the summer, fans have witnessed many indifferent performances and results in the league, yet the Red Devils now find themselves just a point behind Arsenal in second place with a visit to league leaders Chelsea this weekend to come.

It has been a most unusual season for the red half of Manchester.

Marouane Fellaini keeping Angel Di Maria out of the team

Rightly or wrongly, the Belgian midfielder was identified as proof of the demise of the club under David Moyes. Over-priced, under-skilled and 'not a United player' were accusations regularly thrown at the former Everton man, but since he claimed his first Premier League goal against West Brom earlier in the campaign, he hasn't looked back.

A nuisance for defenders, he simply bullies opponents off the ball and has been a great foil for Wayne Rooney. Angel di Maria can only watch on from the bench as the fuzzy-haired powerhouse confounds the critics.

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Di Maria has struggled in a similar manner to Mesut Ozil at Arsenal last season, the bedding in process from La Liga taking longer than many had hoped.

Fellaini might not be the player keeping the Argentinean off the team (you could argue it is more likely Young or Mata), but only the brave or fool-hardy would have said that he would remain on the bench with the often-maligned Belgian in the preferred starting line-up.

Falcao flop

Injuries have hampered his time at the club since day one, but it is increasingly unlikely that Louis van Gaal will decide against extending the Colombian's expensive stay at the club. One of the most expensive loan deals in football history was heralded by the Old Trafford faithful as a signal of their intentions, but he has just four Premier League goals to his name.

A €55m permanent move may be shelved come May.

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Peering down at Liverpool

The two biggest clubs in English football are in somewhat a period of transition, but losing home and away last season was tough to swallow for United followers, particularly the 3-0 humbling at Old Trafford.

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While the Reds qualified for the Champions League, United didn't even make the Europa League as they languished in seventh position, with many predicting this season would follow a similar pattern.

After Christmas this view was reinforced, but United turned the tables to reverse last year's double and are currently eleven points clear of their Merseyside rivals with faint title hopes still lingering after the Manchester derby win. While Van Gaal is expected to splash more cash this summer, Brendan Rodgers will be praying Raheem Sterling doesn't become the latest high profile exit from the club.

Juan and only

Now well and truly demonstrating the faith showed in him by David Moyes, Mata is now the fulcrum of United's attack.

A brace at Anfield will earn brownie points with the fans, the second in particular a contender for Goal of the Season, and his eight league goals means only Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have scored more this term.

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Throw in four assists and real guile in the middle and United have a player looking the part of a £37m transfer fee.

Top dogs in Manchester

Six places and 22 points separated the neighbours last season as Manuel Pellegrini oversaw a title success that appeared to be heading to Liverpool.

The Red Devils lost 7-1 on aggregate over the two league encounters and while the summer spending spree raised optimism in the red half of the city, few were backing them to leapfrog the "noisy neighbours".

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City however have been in a freefall at the very time Van Gaal has been getting the best out of his team.

A 4-2 win at Old Trafford was confirmation of the change in fortunes as they moved four points clear of City, who on current form are more likely to miss out on the top four than challenge for a higher league finish position.

Blind leading the way

A player for whom versatile doesn't do justice to his ability, the World Cup star has been a rock.

Gary Neville had questioned the positive contribution of the Dutchman earlier in the season, suggesting that in midfield he was not ambitious enough on the ball, but on the left flank has been heavily involved in the recent resurgence.

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With a crippling injury list since Van Gaal took over, his ability to cover a number of positions – currently left back – has been invaluable.

Wayne Rooney getting KO'd in his house by a former team-mate

Of course no-one could have predicted such a bizarre incident as the England striker being floored by former team-mate Phil Bardsley in his own home, but the video made its way into the public domain and questions were asked.

Van Gaal felt it was ridiculous to respond to such private matters, while Rooney played the incident off with his KO celebration against Spurs on the weekend the story broke.

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All's well that ends well.

Van Gaal struggling to get the best out of Robin van Persie

While Blind has flourished, another Dutch comrade has gone in the opposite direction. Robin van Persie, scorer of one of the goals of the year at the World Cup with a flying header(courtesy of a Blind cross), has not been able to recapture the form of his first season at United.

He struggled too for periods under Davis Moyes, coupled with injuries, but it was hoped that Van Gaal would have the former Arsenal striker purring up front with Rooney and Falcao.

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He has already played more games than last season – he has featured in 24 out of 32 games in the league – but uncertainty surrounds his future with weekend reports suggesting the club are considering paying up the last 14 months of his £250,000 weekly wage in order to move the player on this summer.

It is possible to prosper with a make-shift defence

Defensively United have been very suspect since claiming the title in Fergie's final year in charge, but this season while they have appeared shaky at times, there has been  marked improvement. Only miserly Southampton (22) and table-toppers Chelsea (26) have conceded fewer than United's 30 goals.

Against City Van Gaal went with what has now become the first-choice back four of Valencia, Jones, Smalling and Blind, hardly the most fearsome and talented rear guard the home supporters have ever witnessed.

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Valencia has been more rigid this term, with positional lapses reduced to a minimum, while Jones and Smalling have also eliminated the high number of errors that threatened to cut short their United careers. Most expected Blind to make his mark in midfield until Luke Shaw's injury woes continued after an under-whelming start to life at Old Trafford.

A centre back and a right back may be on the shopping list in the summer, but for now the aforementioned quartet are getting on with their business.

Fergie no longer the centre of camera action

As David Moyes may well lament, the pressure on taking over from the most successful manager of all-time was simply too great a burden for the Scot.

What didn't help was the fact Ferguson was in the stands for most games, peering on at the disaster unfolding before his eyes, all of which was captured by the cameras. A forlorn looking Moyes would pop up on screens followed swiftly by a close-in on his predecessor.

Even when results were not going his way, not only did Van Gaal appear to escape the same treatment, it was as if his personality was too strong to worry about such instances. Perhaps the main reason it was never such a factor.

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The Dutchman is firmly the main man and images of Ferguson are almost becoming a distant memory in the latest chapter of the club's history.

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