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Manchester United 3-0 Stoke City: Three talking points from Old Trafford

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Manchester United
Photo: Reuters

Newly-announced Stoke City manager Paul Lambert watched on from the stands as two stunning first-half strikes helped Manchester United condemn the Potters to defeat at Old Trafford on Monday night.

The former Norwich and Aston Villa manager was named as Mark Hughes’ successor in charge after his sacking following the Potters’ FA Cup defeat to League Two Coventry City last weekend and he was at Old Trafford to see his new team in action for the first time ahead of taking over officially on Tuesday.

But it wasn’t to be a winning start for Lambert, who watched his side go behind early on when the returning Antonio Valencia fired a thunderous left-foot strike high into the net to put United ahead.

The visitors had chances to get themselves back into the game, with Stephen Ireland – making his first Premier League start since April 2015 – twice spurning clear-cut chances from inside the penalty box.

Stoke’s wastefulness came back to haunt them when Anthony Martial doubled the hosts’ lead before the break in fine fashion, meeting Paul Pogba’s pass with a first-time finish high into the net.

David de Gea was forced into a fine reaction right save on the brink of half-time to push Xherdan Shaqiri’s effort away and keep United’s two-goal lead in tact and from that point on United completely turned the screw and dominated, with Romelu Lukaku’s shot saved at the front post.

The Belgian got his rewards shortly after though when he held the ball up and fired low past Jack Butland, before Marcus Rashford came close to a fourth when his deft heel-flick was held.

The hosts then comfortably saw out the remainder of the game to close the gap on leaders Manchester City to 12 points, whilst Stoke City remain a point adrift of safety down in 18th.

Lambert watches on as Stoke fall to defeat

There are no illusions that this job will be easy.

Paul Lambert – arguably Stoke’s third or fourth choice of manager in their pursuit of a replacement for Mark Hughes over the past week – was well and truly thrown in at the deep end on Monday evening as he travelled to Manchester with the Potters to see his new side in action for the first time as manager.

Earlier in the day Lambert’s arrival on a two-and-a-half-year deal was announced to a somewhat muted reception from Stoke fans, with his managerial CV not one containing too much Premier League pedigree other than respective spells at Norwich City and Aston Villa.

It may not be the most eye-catching move from Stoke’s board of directors but the same has been said this season about David Moyes and Roy Hodgson – and those two have started in fine fashion and completely turned the tides for their respective sides.

The sole objective for Lambert will be to haul Stoke away from any relegation trouble, and he’ll know the magnitude of the job at hand with the Potters sitting in the relegation zone in 18th place.

In truth, there’s not a lot he would have learnt in defeat to Manchester United.

It was never the sort of game that Stoke were expected to get anything from considering their current predicament and neither will it be the sort of game that will help them avoid relegation.

Instead, it’s the upcoming run of games against Huddersfield, Watford, Bournemouth, Brighton and rivals at the bottom Southampton – all of which take place in the next six league games – that may well define Stoke’s season and Lambert’ll know the job really begins when 15:00 comes on Saturday.

Potters defence in need of tightening up

That said, he’ll be fully aware that it’s the defence that’s in dire need of tightening up.

In conceding another three goals on Monday night Stoke have the unwanted title of having the Premier League’s worst defence – and by a long margin – after conceding 50 goals in 23 matches.

It may have been two fine strikes in the first-half that got United up and running but the defending leading up to the goals was questionable at best. For the first, Antonio Valencia was allowed the time to shift the ball onto his left-foot before putting an unstoppable effort into the top corner, whilst for the second nobody in a Stoke jersey tracked the run of Anthony Martial to the edge of the area before he fired home.

And after the break they were fortunate to keep it to just three – largely indebted to Butland for making some smart stops – as Pogba, Lukaku and Martial found regular space far too easily.

Their attacking play showed signs of positives during the first-half in a much-changed side under caretaker boss Eddie Niedzwiecki, and they arguably should have scored at least one before half-time had both Stephen Ireland and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting found the back of the net.

There are more than enough attacking options in the squad, who have enough proven prowess in front of goal, to avoid the drop this year, but they need help from their worryingly leaky back-line before things start to get truly ugly for the Potters.

Mkhitaryan left out as Sanchez waits in the wings

What a roller-coaster week it’s been for Manchester United.

For a side that rarely does its business in the mid-season transfer window shockwaves were sent through the Premier League when their interest in Arsenal’s talisman Alexis Sanchez was first reported by Sky Sports Italia, and it seems increasingly likely that they’ve hijacked Manchester City’s proposed move for the Chilean.

In fact, as Monday’s match was going on against the Potters fresh reports suggested that Pep Guardiola is out of the race for Sanchez – leaving the door wide open for an Old Trafford switch.

And, despite comfortably winning on the night, it was clear to see where he will slot in.

Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were the designated wide outlets for Monday’s clash but neither pride themselves on being out-and-out wingers, and at times United were crying out for an attacking player that can hug the touchline and deliver consistent balls into the box.

At times Romelu Lukaku went out onto the right-wing himself to try and get in the game such was United’s lack of crosses into the area, and as a striker he shouldn’t be the one forced into delivering.

Ultimately it mattered little as a result of two top-class individual strikes but, going forward, the looming arrival of Sanchez could not only add quality on the flanks but improve Lukaku’s play too and enable him to rekindle the sort of prolific form he showed at Everton last season.

But whilst one player looks to be moving ever closer to arriving, one looks equally close to an imminent exit as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was once again left out of Jose Mourinho’s matchday squad.

The Armenian’s fall from grace has been well-documented this season – despite starting the year firing – and reports claiming that he could be included as part of the deal to bring Sanchez to Manchester will only gain traction after comments made by the United manager prior to kick-off.

Asked about Mkhitaryan’s omission on Monday, he told Sky Sports:

“I would lie if I said it was just a tactical decision. Just a choice of the players that we know in this moment they have 100% their heads in Manchester United and no doubts about the future.”

Should Sanchez indeed arrive before the end of the month then there’s a very high probability that Mkhitaryan won’t be a United player come February, and he’ll be hoping that his next career move will help re-ignite the form that attracted Mourinho in the first place back in 2016.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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English Premier League

Newcastle United 1-0 Manchester United: Three talking points from St James’ Park

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Newcastle United delivered one of their best performances of the season as they overcame Manchester United in a hard-fought victory. Due to Huddersfield Town’s win earlier in the day, the Magpies started the match in the relegation zone and only three points would see them climb out of the bottom three. That is exactly what they got as they ran themselves into the ground to beat a more talented top-six team. This was the club’s first win at St James’ Park since October and it came at a crucial time. Here are three talking points from the game:

Martin Dubravka shone on his debut

Although Newcastle didn’t do a great deal of business during the January transfer window, they did make three loan signings and one of them was the star of the show on Sunday. Martin Dubravka came in for his Magpies’ debut as he replaced Karl Darlow in goal and it would have been easy to be daunted by the occasion, but the Slovakian international took it in his stride. He was near faultless, as he made a number of crucial saves and marshalled his box effectively.

Benitez has wanted a new goalkeeper since he took over at the club, but last summer’s signing Matz Sels didn’t adjust to English football and that left the manager with the problem that he inherited. Karl Darlow and Rob Elliot have shared the duties of being number one, but neither have stood out as being Premier League quality.

The addition of Dubravka supplied instant benefits, as he was quick to claim crosses and had an excellent control of his area. In the first-half, he made a crucial stop to deny Anthony Martial. With just minutes left, he made an incredible reaction save to make sure Newcastle kept hold of the clean sheet. It was a debut to remember and on this evidence, the Slovakian will be the number one at St James’ Park for the rest of the campaign.

Manchester United lacked options to change the game

There were some strange decisions made by Jose Mourinho as he tried to change the game in his side’s favour in the second half. He brought on Michael Carrick and Juan Mata for Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. This change arguably made them more predictable in attack, as the two players coming on had less pace and dynamism. The third change saw youngster Scott McTominay come on for Nemanja Matic. It was a tough ask for the inexperienced midfielder to get Manchester United back in to the game.

Although the changes arguably made the team worse, there were few options available to Mourinho, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford were all missing from the squad. Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw were on the bench, but neither are attacking players and that is what Manchester United needed.

Paul Pogba looked jaded and lacking fitness for the entire ninety minutes, but he was forced to start due to the lack of other options on Sunday. It is no excuse, but the inability to change the game did leave Mourinho short, especially after falling behind.

Newcastle won the midfield battle

As alluded to above, Paul Poba didn’t look fully fit and Newcastle United took full advantage of that as they won the midfield battle. Mohamed Diame was a figure of frustration for the first-half of the season, but he has improved significantly in recent weeks. He and Jonjo Shelvey were both superb, as they fought hard and distributed the ball well when they had the opportunity to. Between them, they made 13 ball recoveries and five key passes. They fully committed to the cause and played a vital role in the team’s victory.

The renaissance of Diame has been incredible to watch as he is now performing to the level that Rafa Benitez would have expected when he was signed last summer. However, the improvement of Shelvey could prove to be even more important in the long run. The midfielder has been difficult to manage at times due to his ability to lose his head on the pitch. On Sunday, he was a professional and remained focused, which was a mental victory for him.

The Magpies manager and the supporters will be hoping he can continue to perform to this level. If he can, the former Swansea City midfielder can be the player that everybody knows he can become.

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Arsenal

Which four of the ‘big-six’ clubs will qualify for next season’s Champions League?

Martyn Cooke

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There are just 12 games remaining of the current Premier League season and, with Manchester City seemingly destined to secure the title, attention will now turn towards the battle to secure a place in the top-four.

There are only three places available to share between Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool and two of those clubs will be have to be content with competing in the Europa League next season.

Here, The Boot Room predicts who will finish in the top four at the end of the season…

Arsenal

There was once a time when the possibility of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal failing to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable, yet the Gunners are facing the realistic possibility of missing out on playing in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive season.

This campaign they have been held back by their inconsistent and unpredictable form away from home and are playing catch-up with their rivals with a five-point gap emerging between themselves and fourth place.

There is a new sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Wenger added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his squad yet a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday would all but end their hopes – qualifying through winning the Europa League could be a more realistic option.

Prediction: 6th

Manchester United

There is currently a slight sense of disappointment around Old Trafford this season that, despite obvious progress since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, the club have had to be content with seeing cross-city rivals Manchester City stroll their way towards the Premier League title.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United missing out on a Champions League place as they already have a considerable buffer of seven points and undoubtedly have a squad that is full of quality and experience.

The arrival of Alexis Sanchez will provide additional impetus in the closing stages of the campaign and the only real danger is that their attention might be redirected towards challenging for the Champions League or FA Cup with the title already all but lost.

However, Mouirnho has his team ticking over nicely and it is likely that they will maintain their current league position.

Prediction: 2nd  

Chelsea

It has been a frustrating and increasing turbulent season at Stamford Bridge following the failure of Chelsea to build on last season’s title triumph.

Back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left the Blues clinging on to their place in the top four and there is now a realistic possibility that they may miss out on Champions League qualification.

Antonio Conte’s frustration with the club’s transfer policy has been clear to see since the summer and the off-pitch squabbling can only be a destabilising influence for the players.

Chelsea are certainly a team that are out of form and appear to be short of confidence and direction and it will be a true test of Conte’s managerial prowess to see if he can facilitate some sort of revival in the closing months of the season.

However, momentum is currently against them and they may well be one of the two clubs to miss out.

Prediction: 6th

Liverpool

You get the sense that it is always two steps forward followed by one step back at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp and you never know quite what to expect.

Liverpool continue to be consistently inconsistent as demonstrated by their recent, contrasting performances against Manchester City and Swansea City.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window is a boost, although recent games have suggested that he alone will not solve the club’s defensive frailties, whilst the sale of Phillip Coutinho is offset by the impressive array of attacking players that Klopp has collected.

If Liverpool can put together a good run of results then they will be able to capitalise on Antonio Conte’s woes as Chelsea and finish in the top four.

Prediction: 4th

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur supporters will now have a taste for Champions League football after the success of their team in this year’s competition and they are hitting form at just the right moment in the Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten since mid-December and have plenty of momentum with the inspirational figure of Harry Kane continuing to his remarkable, prolific run of form in front of goal.

Much will depend on whether the England striker can stay fit until the end of the season whilst they also need Dele Alli to rediscover the sparkle that he has lost in recent months.

Tottenham face a season-defining fixture on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the North London derby but they should have enough quality to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Prediction: 3rd

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