With a quarter of their rather mundane season, Manchester United is on the verge of unexpected performance. If they show any form of consistency, appetite or gumption in the coming months, a place in the Champions League could be theirs.
United did not look like a Champions League team for much of this campaign. Even their better moments are so fleeting that they disappear from memory almost immediately.
But now, a combination of successive victories and the persistent weaknesses of others, the team of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have the right to an unexpected opportunity and it seems that the following four games can tell us a long way if they are really capable.
A victory over Chelsea last Monday followed by a performance here that got better as it lasted longer and United left United in fifth place, only three points lower than what is admittedly rather sloppy pace. The following are games against Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Sheffield United. Four games to make or break a season? It looks almost like this.
Here the Solskjaer team started slowly but ended quite well. He will hope that it is a metaphor for the season. This is a United team that is more suited to counter-attack – a new signing by Bruno Fernandes certainly helped – and once they were in charge of a Watford match that was competitive for an hour, they grew in confidence and they looked really dangerous.
It was Fernandes who led United after Ben Foster had brought him down to award a penalty in the 40th minute. Then, after what looked like a Watford equalizer was ruled out by VAR in the second half, United extended its advantage through Anthony Martial and young Mason Greenwood.
The goals of the second half were simple to look at, such as the sight of Fernandes and the man of the match Daniel James who ran directly and regularly from deep positions to the Watford defense. United looks dangerous when they attack like that – worried defenders turn on their heels – and it is something that Solskjaer should try to exploit between now and May.
Conversely, it is nowadays unusual for United to start a game well. The Solskjaer team tends to slowly fall out of the trap. That was how it was here. On a turbulent day, they played early without specific intensity or time, which enabled Watford, among other things, to settle down and play their part.
EQUAL FACTS, PLAYER REVIEWS AND LEAGUE TABLE
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 6, Maguire 6, Shaw 6; Matic 6, Fred 6 (McTominay 78 minutes); Greenwood 7 (Chong 78 minutes 6), Fernandes 7.5, James 8; Martial 6.5 (Ighalo 78 minutes 6). Not used: Romero, Bailly, Mata, Williams.
Objectives: Fernandes pen 40, Martial 59, Greenwood 74
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 6.5
Watford (4-2-3-1): Foster 5.5; Dawson 5.5, Kabasele 6, Cathcart 6; Masina 6; Hughes 6, Capoue 6; Pereyra 5.5 (Sarr 68mins) 6, Doucoure 6.5, Deulofeu 6; Deeney 6 (Welbeck 75 minutes 6). Not used: Gomes, Mariappa, Cleverley, Chalobah, Gray.
Manager: Nigel Pearson 6
] Referee: Martin Atkinson 56
Man of the competition: Daniel James
Attendance: 73, 347
- League One
- League Two
- Scottish Premiership
- Scottish Div 1
- Scottish Div 2
- Scottish Div 3
- Call 1
- Series A
- La Liga
The first chance was indeed on the visiting team. Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire got caught in a jumble just outside their own penalty kick and when the ball broke, Troy Deeney looked like he could get a shot. He would also have done it if Luke Shaw had not read the situation so well and had rushed from left to right.
That should have served as a warning for United. Watford does not play as a bottom three under Nigel Pearson and had clearly come to Old Trafford to take action.
Young Greenwood registered an early recording for United, but it was at a distance and straight to Foster. On the other hand, a low cross from the dangerous Gerard Deulofeu Abdoulaye found Doucoure in a dangerous position, but he couldn't find a space to get a shot and eventually ran the ball over the dead ball line while looking for a corner.
Neither of the teams had adapted terribly well to the circumstances and that was not surprising. United, in the absence of the injured Marcus Rashford, lacked a focal point at the front.
Fernandes – always looking for a bag of space in the last third – fed James on the left in the 17th minute. The curled shot from the Welsh winger to the far post didn't look that dangerous, but when Foster pushed it directly to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the United full-back might have done better than driving the rebound wide from the nearby post.
Roberto Pereyra was only just wide with a good shot halfway through half and then Shaw, for United, Foster routinely worked with a low ride from 25 yards.
For a while that was the way in which both teams felt each other a bit. Over time, however, United slowly took the initiative. Too many of Watford & # 39; s trips broke down 30 yards from the goal – much to Pearson's frustration – and although Doucoure saved David de Gea with a grating left foot in the half hour, it was no great surprise that United finally arrived managed to squeeze the lead.
Space was the key. United started to find it in the attacking areas of the field. Fred should have done more than a sideways shot after a combination of Fernandes and James found him in the 38th minute and then Fernandes took matters into their own hands.
The pass through the middle of James was a good one and Fernandes reached the ball well ahead of Foster who brought it down. Fernandes waited for Foster to bind himself to the right before quietly placing the penalty in the opposite corner. Five minutes before half time United was at the forefront and it was a reward for what would have been steady if there were no spectacular improvements.
It felt like a big moment in a game that never felt like it would have many goals. It happened that the most important passage did not arrive until the second half, because Watford had ruled out a goal and then United went on six minutes later.
. Watford started the second half strong, as if he were instructed by Pearson to try and get hold of the game. And when Will Hughes took James on the edge of his own territory, Doucoure was able to drive a low cross that forced Shaw to take a corner.
When the ball arrived near the post, two United defenders missed it and Craig Dawson bundled it against the post, allowing Deeney to poke the rebound. It seemed a reasonable goal, but when Watford celebrated the VAR officials, they went to work and showed that Dawson & # 39; s use of the upper arm to divert the ball to goal was clear.
So, relieved and undoubtedly relieved, United tried to profit and did so soon after. James and Greenwood were neatly combined on the left to cause problems when Fernandes sent Martial through the same channel in the 59th minute. Foster saved the Frenchman's first shot with his leg, but when Martial regained possession, he was able to turn and lift the ball over the Watford goalkeeper and into a goal that really should have been protected by that time by a defender on the line.
Able to relax a bit and now that Watford is chasing the game, United starts to play freely. Foster saved again with his of Martial – this time the attack came to the right – and then Maguire was off the goal with a header from a free kick.
Shortly afterwards they sealed the game and it was a nice goal. Hughes lost the ball in midfield and when Fernandes broke and fed Greenwood, the young attacker could go inside on his left foot and hit Foster high to the right of the goalkeeper.
Watford boss Nigel Pearson and assistant Craig Shakespeare watched while Watford attempted to climb the bottom three "class =" blkBorder img- share "/>
Genoa 2-3 Lazio: Ciro Immobile scores 27th goal of the season as Lazio small lead over Series A Juventus leaders
- Ciro Immobile scored its 27th goal of the season like Lazio saw off hosts Genoa
- Adam Marusic and Danilo Cataldi achieved the visitors' score sheet
- Francesco Cassata and Domenico Criscito scored for relegation Italian Ga
- Lazio has the gap just one point behind the leaders of the Serie A Juventus
Lazio, at 59 points from 25 games, remained one point behind the Turin side as they equaled their points for the entire past season, finishing eighth, and extended their undefeated run to 20 league games, including 16 victories.
Third placed Inter The Milan home match against Sampdoria was one of the four games that were postponed Sunday due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Lombardy and Veneto region.
Lazio needed less than two minutes to continue when Adam Marusic exchanged passes with Felipe Caicedo and was driven by the defense of Genoa to score.
Both teams had chances in an end-to-end game before Immobile, who played in all Lazio games, added the second of Caicedo's flick in the 51st minute.
Genoa is stuck in the relegation zone with 22 points, but they had not lost in their last four games and withdrew one when Francesco Cassata scored six minutes later from the edge of the area.
Lazio survived a few frightening moments before Danilo Cataldi drove a free kick over the wall, which turned out to be the winner in the 71st minute.
Genoa seized another one with a time delay converted by Domenico Criscito after Manuel Lazzari was convicted after a VAR assessment.
SPAL (4-3-3) : Wolfi, Cionek, Bonifazi, Zubas, Reca, Missiroli (Tunjov 80), Valdifiori, Castro (Fares 60), Strefezza, Petagna, Valoti
Subs not used: Floccari, Murgia, Dabo, Thiam , Vicari, Letica, Sala, Dias da Silva Dal Belo, Di Francesco, Tomovic
Scorers: (Petanga pen 69)
Posted: Zubas, Valoti, Cionek, Strefezza
Juventus (4-3-3) : Szczesny, Danilo, Rugani, Chiellini (from Light 55), Sandro, Ramsey (Rabiot), Bentancur, Matuidi (Bernardeschi 79), Cuadrado, Dybala, Ronaldo
Subs not used: ]  Buffon, De S ciglio, Pinsoglio, Olivieri, Coccolo, Peeters, de Oliveira Andrade
Scorers: Ronaldo (39), Ramsey (60)
Booked: Matuidi, Danilo
Referee: Federico La Penna
Barcelona (4-1-2-1-2) : Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique (Umtiti 68), Lenglet, Firpo; Busquets (de Jong 59); Rakitic, Vidal; Arthur; Messi, Griezmann (Braithwaite 72)
Subs not used : Neto, Roberto, Akieme, Fati
Goalscorers : Messi 14, 37, 40 , 87, Arthur 89
Manager: Quique Setien
Eibar (4-2-3-1) : Dmitrovic; Tejero, Burgos, Arbilla, Cote; Diop, Exposito; Orellana, Escalante, Inui (by Blasis 66); Enrich (Gonzalez Casin 66)
Subs not used : Sergio Alvarez, Oliveira, Yoel Rodriguez, Cristoforo, Pedro Leon
Booked : Escalante, Diop
Manager: Jose Luis Mendilibar
Referee: Cesar Soto Grado ]
] Attendance: 66,970
& # 39; I think he is a class player and underused in this Chelsea team & # 39 ;: Peter Crouch praises Olivier Giroud as a French striker on his first start in almost three months
- Olivier Giroud made a rare start for the crucial Chelsea game against Tottenham
- The French striker had not started a game against West Ham since November
- Giroud made the most of his chance by scoring Chelsea & # 39; s opening goal
The French international was largely ignored this season by Frank Lampard with the Chelsea legend relying on Tammy Abraham as his most important striker.
But with the English international who is currently injured, Giroud got his first start since a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on November 30 and made the most of his opportunity.
The goal came in only 15 minutes el when Jorginho played a smart through ball to Giroud whose first shot was saved, before he then hit the rebound after Ross Barkley & # 39; s follow-up shot hit the post.
& # 39; He is a top player and I think he gets a little stick for a reason, & # 39; Crouch told BT Sport during the break.
He added: & # 39; I think he is a class player and he is underused in this Chelsea team. & # 39;
The 33-year-old Frenchman joined Chelsea of local rivals Arsenal in January 2018, where he scored 105 goals in 253 games.
Since joining Stamford Bridge, he scored 19 goals in 71 games, but his chances have been limited since Lampard was appointed as manager.
His start against Tottenham was only his fifth of the Premier League season and he failed to make ten consecutive league games until he made a rare appearance on the bench during Monday's 2-0 defeat against Manchester United.
Giroud still plays an important role for the French national team where the country is the third leading international goal scorer with 39 goals – only behind great players Thierry Henry and Michel Platini.
BT Sport expert Ferdinand added: & # 39; He is one of the best goal scorers in French football internationally.
& # 39; I think that Frank's changes were at the forefront of the good things they have done today. Mason Mount, Barkley, (Marcos) Alonso and of course Giroud with the goal. & # 39;
Chelsea would score a second by Alonso and hold on to a 2-1 victory despite Antonio Rudiger's own goal.
Rory McIlroy scores 65 to lead WGC-Mexico Championship with two shots from Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson
- Rory McIlroy has a lead in the first round with a six-under- par 65 on Thursday
- The victory would see him complete the four WGC events this week
- Title defender Dustin Johnson ran four bogeys and one double in a 76
McIlroy broke his drives great distances in the thin skies of Mexico City and supplemented his long game by accurately betting a two-shot advantage over Americans Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson at Club de Golf Chapultepec .
& # 39; I love this place, like the golf course, and have always played well at height for whatever reason, & said the world # 1 after shutting down its day by sinking a 10-foot birdie at the latest.
McIlroy won the World Golf Championships (WGC) tournament in Shanghai in November and the win this week would set him the set of all four Have WGC events complete.
The Northern Irish is in stellar form early in the new PGA Tour season, with a draw for fifth in Los Angeles on Sunday his worst result in four starts.
Accuracy from the tee is crucial in the tree-lined Club de Golf Chapultepec, but McIlroy did not hold back, hitting three discs over 365 meters.
But it was his putt ing that pleased him most for a week after a fateful experiment with a 35-inch model that was slightly longer than his usual putter.
& # 39; Once I was there (last week), that inch difference with the putter was moving your eye line and you stopped seeing your lines as you usually do, & # 39; he.
& I saw the tournament through. It didn't work the way I wanted, so glad I got old believers back in the bag and it worked well today.
& # 39; It was definitely a confirmation to go back to the putter I had been using for the last 14 months. If I keep saying, I will be very happy. & # 39;
Nipping on McIlroy's heels, Thomas and Watson both mixed five little birds with one bogey when shooting 67 as they bounced off missing the cut last week.
& # 39; I've had two 62 & # 39; s here, and you can get it going & # 39 ;, said Thomas, winner of the Tour twice this season.
& I thought it was tough today. I have never played this place with this kind of wind. & # 39;
Two-time Masters champion Watson, who enjoyed a round with pop star Justin Bieber last weekend after missing the cut at the Genesis Invitational, I had more luck on the greens on Thursday.
& # 39; I just made a few putts today. The only thing missing last week when I missed the cut was that I didn't make putts, & Watson said.
At the other end of the field, defending champion Dustin Johnson caught four bogeys and a double in a 76, making him 62nd in the 72-man field.
EUROPE LEAGUE AROUND-UP: Daichi Kamada scores 53-minute hat trick as Eintracht Frankfurt seal last-32 first leg win over RB Salzburg
- Daichi Kamada had a night to remember such as Frankfurt hammered RB Salzburg
- Sporting Lisbon assured a comfortable 3-1 over Istanbul Basaksehir
- Isaac Kiese Thelin scored on both ends as his Malmo side lost to Wolfsburg
Daichi Kamada scored a hat trick in 53 minutes while Eintracht Frankfurt RB Salzburg beat 4-1 in the Commerzbank Arena.
Filip Kostic added a fourth at 56 minutes, but Hee-Chan Wang provided a comforting goal of 85 minutes to give the Austrian club a glimmer of hope.
Sporting Lisbon took an important step towards the Europa League last Thursday, winning a 3-1 victory in their round of 32 first-leg clash with Istanbul Basaksehir.
The Portuguese club raced in a 3-0 lead thanks to goals from Sebastian Coates, Andraz Sporar and Luciano Vietto, but Edin Visca's late penalty made Silas careful for the second leg in Turkey.
Sevilla & # 39; s Europa League progress is in balance after they saved a 1-1 draw at CFR Cluj.
Ciprian Deac's free kick gave the hosts a 59-minute lead. Youssef En Nesyri, however, took an important equalizer with eight minutes of normal time.
Meanwhile, Shahktar Donetsk won a 2-1 win over Benfica with Alan Patrick breaking the deadlock and Viktor Kovalenko scoring the decisive goal after Pizzi's fine.
FC Basel plundered three goals at APOEL Nicosia, except for their place in the next round, as Raoul Petretta, Valentin Stocker and Arthur Cabral all scored in Cyprus
Malmo took an unlikely lead in Wolfsburg thanks to Isaac Kiese Thelin & # 39; s punishment. Josip Brekalo reacted only two minutes later and Thelin & # 39; s joy turned to despair when he surrounded himself in his own net to give the Bundesliga side a one-goal lead on the way to the second leg.
AZ Alkmaar and LASK played a 1-1 draw in the 86th minute of Holland Teun Koopmeiners canceled the first half of Marko Raguz.
Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Porto: Liverpool goal Kai Havertz scores from the penalty spot while the Bundesliga club secures the Europa League round of 32 first stage victory
Olympiacos 0-1 Arsenal: Alexandre Lacazette scores late winner to bring Gunners in control over round of 32 Europa League draw
- Alexandre Lacazette scored an important distance goal after 81 minutes victory to be sealed
- Sokratis hit the bar with a late header when Arsenal gathered in the second half
- Lacazette missed a golden opportunity in the first half but made up late for
The attacker left home Bukayo Saka in 81 minutes to seal the win and it could have been 2-0 if Sokratis's late header did not come back from the post.
Lacazette missed a golden opportunity in the first half before making up for it later, while Bernd Leno handed out a free kick from Mathieu Valbuena because Arsenal secured an impressive victory.
Atalanta: Gollini, Toloi, Caldara (Zapata 75) , Palomino, Hateboer, De Roon, Freuler, Gosens, Pasalic (Tameze 90), Ilicic, Gomez (Malinovsky 81)
Subs not used: Muriel, Castagne, Sportiello, Czyborra
Targets: Hateboer 16, 62, Ilicic 42, Freuler 57
Valencia: Domenech Jaume, Wass, Mangala, Diakhaby, Kondogbia, Gaya, Torres, Parejo, Carlos Soler, Goncalo Guedes (Cheryshev 64), Gomez (Gameiro 73)
Targets: Cheryshev 66
Subs not used: Correia, Costa Jaume, Cillessen, Sobrino, Molina
] Referee: Michael Oliver (England)