Sports

Scholes sticks a pin in United’s balloon of hope


Not many people ever have sympathy for BT Sport’s Jake Humphrey, the poor fella often described as football-telly-presenting’s Alan Partridge, partly because of his motivational messages that more often than not, to be honest, read like something you’d find in a Hallmark card.

But no one could ever doubt his enthusiasm for nights such as Manchester United vs Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 encounter, Jake positively buzzin’ ahead of the game.

The problem, though, was that he had Paul Scholes on his panel, a man who could suck the life out of, say, the first moon landing by, say, questioning why Neil Armstrong chose his left rather than right foot for his first small step.

And after Jake billed the match like it would be a giant leap for mankind, Scholesie shrugged, suggesting, in so many words, that there was as much chance of the Champions League winners coming from this tie as, say, from the National League South clash of Billericay Town and Dorking Wanderers.

Not even the team news could raise his spirits.

“Do you look at that line-up and feel filled with hope?” asked Jake.

“Emmmmmmm,” he replied, “not massively.”

His main bone of contention was the inclusion of Harry Maguire.

“What must Rangnick think of Lindelöf,” he said, intimating that ‘Arry’s been so rubbish the last while, he makes the Swede seem like the love-child of Franz Beckenbauer and Franco Baresi.

“Pochettino or ten Hag,” Jake asked.

“Conte or Tuchel,” said Scholesie.

Jake: “On a night like this, United can’t not deliver.”

Scholesie: “Well . . . we’ll see.”

Jake is generally a bubbly man, but Scholesie was stabbing a needle in to his balloon of hope.

At least Rio Ferdinand was more positive, especially with his lauding of Jadon Sancho who, he said, made lots of “decisive decisions” against Spurs at the weekend.

But Owen Hargreaves had Jake deflated all over again when he fretted about United’s future, the possibility/likelihood of the departures of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Eric Bailly, Edinson Cavani, Dean Henderson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Alex Telles, Diogo Dalot, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Nemanja Matic, Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek come summer meaning that any of us might get a game if we turn up in Manchester come August armed with boots.

But that was a worry for another day, Tuesday was about United attempting to prolong their last hope of silverware this season, BT’s Des Kelly wondering if those hopes were diminished by the exclusion of Pogba, Rashford and Cavani from the starting line-up, prodding Rangnick on his selection.

“None of them is playing well enough to make Dorking Wanderers’ first XI,” Rangnick wanted to say, but because he’s a very decent man, he resisted the temptation. Instead, he explained that Anthony Elanga was starting because “it’s about verticality”, Des, no more than ourselves, pretending to understand what that meant.

Kick-off approached.

“The more you talk, the more we feel the anticipation,” said Jake to Scholesie, Hargreavesie and Rio, and you honestly couldn’t tell if he was jesting.

First half. Atlético had a goal disallowed but then they had one allowed, and if you read a finer half-match report than that if your lifetime, you’ll be blessed.

Jake:”Rio?”

Rio: “I’m still confident . . . in a way.”

Second half.

On it plodded, United’s attack lacking verticality, horizontality or any ality at all, Rangnick bringing on Mata, Cavani, Matic, Rashford and Pogba, Lingard left sharing the bench with Phil Jones and two sub goalies, possibly confirming his belief that it might be time to move on in the summer.

The biggest cheer of the night, as it proved, was when ‘Arry was replaced by Mata seven minutes from time, which was cruel, but no crueller than his team’s efforts to score a goal, a mighty one shot on target being mustered in the second half.

Full-time.

Atlético Madrid’s head coach Diego Simeone endures the ire of the Manchester United supporters after his side’s victory at Old Trafford. Photograph: Peter powell/EPA
Atlético Madrid’s head coach Diego Simeone endures the ire of the Manchester United supporters after his side’s victory at Old Trafford. Photograph: Peter powell/EPA

After, there was a giant leap for mankind in the BT studio: Scholesie praised United. Well, ish. “I think they tried,” he said, like that was a major breakthrough.

Jake smiled and nodded. It sort of called to mind that Partridge line: “People forget that on the Titanic’s maiden voyage there were over 1,000 miles of uneventful, very pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg.”

Five years and counting without a trophy. Iceberg, eh, hit. But at least now they can concentrate on the battle for fifth in the Premier League with West Ham, Wolves (and Spurs).

As the United faithful oft sing, “always look on the bright side of life”.



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