Disastrous United Season
Finishing sixth in the league, and sacking the most successful manager in European soccer, Portugal’s José Mourinho, Manchester United saw all of the 2018-19 season’s winnable trophies go to the five teams that finished above them in the English championship. Having won the Charity Shield, 2-0, with goals from Argentine center forward, Sergio Agüero, against Chelsea in the season’s opener, Manchester rivals City went on to win the FA Cup and league double, a feat that had only previously been achieved by United themselves in 1993-94, 1995-96 and 1998-99; Preston North End in 1888-89; Aston Villa in 1896-97; Tottenham Hotspur in 1960-61; Arsenal in 1970-71, 1997-98, and 2001-02; Liverpool in 1985-86, and Chelsea in 2009-10. The 2018 Charity Shield was won by Agüero, who collected the ball on the edge of the area after a surge forward by City’s central midfielder, Phil Foden, and fired into the bottom corner on 13 minutes. After the break, on 58 minutes Agüero latched on to City central midfielder Bernardo Silva’s pass to beat Chelsea’s Argentine ‘keeper, Willy Caballero, with another precise low finish. That Manchester City became the 8th club to win ‘the double’ hurt, but to see Chelsea and Arsenal Vying for the Europa Cup in a Final that ‘The Blues’ won, 4-1, after going in at the closing of the first half, 0-0, hurt some more. French center forward, Olivier Giroud, opened the scoring for Chelsea in the 49th minute with a low header to the left corner from 12 yards out, after a cross from Italian left-back, Emerson Palmieri. Spain’s right-wing, Pedro, made it 2-0 in the 60th minute when he steered a low shot into the right corner from 12 yards out after a low pass from Belgian center forward, Eden Hazard, on the left. Five minutes later, Chelsea was awarded a penalty after a foul on Giroud by Arsenal’s right midfielder, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, which Eden Hazard rolled into the left corner, sending Chelsea’s Czech ‘keeper, Peter Čech, the wrong way. Although Arsenal pulled a goal back in the 69th minute from a powerful right-footed shot from Nigerian substitute forward, Alex Iwobi, outside the penalty area, Chelsea made it 4–1 three minutes later with another goal from Hazard, a side-footed shot into the right corner from eight yards out after a pass from Giroud.
For Manchester United, Liverpool’s defeat of Spurs, 2-0, in the European Champions’ Cup Final was salt in the wound. Ahead after 2 minutes through Egyptian center forward Mohamed Salah’ penalty after a handball by Tottenham’s French midfielder, Moussa Sissoko, Liverpool kept Spurs at bay until, following an 87th minute corner kick that Spurs failed to deal with, Belgian forward Divock Origi pounced inside the penalty area and scored, so giving the Anfield outfit their 6th European Champions’ Cup. Not enough salt apparently for 3 x European Champions’ Cup winners United, because in the 2018-19 season’s campaigning Manchester City became the first team to win the English treble. The FA Cup was won, 6-0, against Watford. The contest was effectively over from the moment Spain’s left midfielder, David Silva, finished from close range after 26 minutes, and Brazilian center forward Gabriel Jesus’ doubling of the advantage on 38 minutes, after a sublime pass from Bernardo Silva. Belgium’s midfielder, Kevin de Bruyne, on as a substitute for Algerian right-winger, Riyad Mahrez, scored on 61 minutes from Jesus’ pass and the Brazilian raced clear for another goal on 68 minutes. England’s left-winger, Raheem Sterling, turned in Bernardo Silva’s perfect cross on 80 minutes, before bundling in another on 87 minutes, 6-0. Manchester City won the title narrowly with 98 points from European Champions’ Liverpool, who finished on 97 points. The League Cup had been won by City on February 24th, 4-3 on penalties after extra time when normal time and time added on failed to produce anything more than a goalless draw. Chelsea didn’t recover from Italian central midfielder Jorginho’s failure to score from their first penalty. The German midfielder, İlkay Gündoğan, and Sergio Agüero had given City a 2-1 lead despite Chelsea captain and right back, Spain’s César Azpilicueta’s successful spot-kick. When German winger Leroy Sané failed to find the net, Italy’s left-back, Emerson Palmieri, stepped up to make it 2-2. However, Portugal’s Bernardo and England’s Sterling didn’t miss, and Eden Hazard’s success with Chelsea’s fifth penalty couldn’t redress Brazilian center-back David Luiz’s failure with their fourth, 4-3. While United fans looked to blame Mourinho for having gotten them only as far as the last 16 of the European Cup and through to the FA Cup 4th round, he was sacked and replaced by ex-United striker, Norway’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, famed at Old Trafford’s ‘Theater of Dreams’ for scoring a last-minute goal to give ‘The Reds’ victory against the German side Bayern Munich, 2-1, in the European Cup Final of 1999 that gave ‘The Red Devils’ the treble of FA Cup, league title and European Cup.
The only bright spot in the 2018-19 season was that United qualified for the group stages of the 2019-20 Europa Cup competition. It hadn’t even been possible for Manchester United to cheer on an ex-player because no former members of the team were present within the ranks of the successful clubs above them in the English league with the notable exception of Arsenal’s center forward, Danny Welbeck, although he finished the season without a winners’ medal. However, he still managed to stay ahead of his old teammates, after being deemed surplus to requirements by Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal, who sold him to Arsenal for £ 16 m on September 2, 2014, while returning the highest season’s tally of only 5 goals since. Welbeck left before Gaal’s only noteworthy success with the club in the FA Cup Final of 2016 which the team won, 2-1, against Crystal Palace. That afternoon it was another rising star forward, Marcus Rashford, that took center stage. Rashford didn’t score that day, and all of the scorings came after he was substituted in the 72nd minute by winger, Ashley Young. Crystal Palace then took the lead in the 78th minute when Jason Puncheon, 72nd minute substitute for French central midfielder, Yohan Cabaye, brought the ball down from a ball played into the penalty box by Palace right-back, Joel Ward, and cut in on the left before firing past United’s Spanish ‘keeper, David de Gea, at his near post with his left foot. Spain’s inside forward, Juan Mata, redressed the balance from ten yards out after a Marouane Fellaini chest down on 81 minutes from a Wayne Rooney cross on the right. As the scores remained level on 90 minutes, 15 minutes each way of added extra time had to be played. Jesse Lingard scored the winner on 110 minutes, 2-1, from a right foot volley inside the penalty area that flew past Palace’s Welsh ‘keeper, Wayne Hennessey, before he could move.
Mourinho’s appointment for the following season, 2016-17, had been anticipated at least since the retirement of manager Alex Ferguson after his winning a 13th league title with Manchester United in 2012-13; despite the board’s decision to appoint Everton’s David Moyes whose inability to beat Sunderland at home to qualify for the League Cup Final on penalties, 1-2, ultimately led to his dismissal and the appointment of Gaal. Marcus Rashford was a part of the plan for the future, although injury to prolific center forward, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimović, signed on a free transfer from French club Paris Saint-Germain, and what seemed in hindsight a hasty decision to allow all-time goal-scoring England legend, Wayne Rooney, to return to Everton, meant that a lot of pressure would be brought to bear on a young striker whose league score for 2016-17 would be 5. Two goals from ‘Ibra’, a 19th minute free kick on the left and an 87th minute header, and another from England winger, Jessie Lingard, with a low right-foot shot to the right of the net from just inside the penalty area on 38 minutes, had secured the 2017 League Cup, 3-2, against Southampton, but largely without Rashford, who’d come on in the 77th minute after the scoring was done. However, Marcus was center forward against the Dutch side Ajax of Amsterdam for the 2016-17 season’s Europa Cup Final, which the team won with a deflected shot on 18 minutes from French central midfielder, Paul Pogba, and an overhead kick from Armenia’s right-wing captain Mkhitaryan, 2-0, on 48 minutes. Consequently, optimism was high at the outset of the 2107-18 campaign, which ended with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard slotting home a 22nd minute penalty in the 2018 FA Cup Final to beat United, 0-1, after a hasty sliding tackle from United center back, Phil Jones, which ultimately ended Mourinho’s reign as manager for failing to put silverware in the trophy cabinet. Rashford started the game with only 7 goals for the season, although Romelu Lukaku, who finished with 16 goals after arriving from Everton at the ‘Theater of Dreams’ for £ 90 m, and the day after Rooney returned to ‘the Toffees’, remained on the subs bench, along with French center forward, Anthony Martial, who’d gotten 9 goals in much less time than Rashford got his 7 that season. Both Rashford and Lingard were replaced on 73 minutes by Lukaku and Martial, but too late to save United from defeat.
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Mourinho’s reign was over at Christmas 2018. Marcus Rashford finished the season on 10 goals, but so did Martial and Lukaku got 12, while 10 was Rashford’s highest total since his 2015-16 first season’s 5 in 11 starts, although he subsequently made 32, 35 and 33 appearances in 2016-17 (5), 2017-18 (7) and 2018-19 (10). Contrarily, forwards at Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal were riches in abundance. At City Argentina’s Sergio Agüero got 20 league goals and had been doing so since 2011-12, whilst at Liverpool Mohamed Saleh of Egypt scored 22 times in the league and the previous season he’d gotten 32. The ‘Pool’s Senegal winger, Sadio Mané, got 22 goals, and his lowest score in three seasons at the club was 10 the previous term, while Brazilian center forward, Roberto Firmino, had been in double figures since his arrival from German club Hoffenheim for the commencement of the 2015-16 season’s campaigning. England center forward, Harry Kane, had been hitting the back of the net hard at White Hart Lane since 2014-15 with season’s tallies of 21, 25, 29, 27, and 17 respectively before the onset of the 2019-20 campaign. African, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, center forward and Gabon captain, brought for the previous 2017-18 term for £ 56 m from Borussia Dortmund, where he’d been the Bundesliga’s top scorer in 2016-17, scored 22 times for Arsenal , and reminded United fans of Alex Ferguson’s purchase of France’s Robin Van Persie before the beginning of the 2012-13 season when the former Arsenal forward scored 26 league goals as Manchester United won the league for the 13th occasion under Ferguson’s guidance. At Chelsea Eden Hazard finished on 16 goals and had been striking for ‘the Blues’ since 2012-13. That United couldn’t afford to nurture talent at this level seemed evident. Although there’s always be a place for a young striker in the hearts of the fans, it wouldn’t win any prizes against seasoned professionals.