‘There’s still a big gap between Real Madrid, Man Utd’
Manchester United icon Andy Cole has warned his former club not to get carried away by their excellent start to the new season, warning they remain a long way behind Real Madrid ahead of the Champions League.
Cole, who managed a United legends team in a 2-2 draw against Barcelona at Old Trafford on Saturday, has been impressed by Jose Mourinho’s side winning all three of their opening Premier League matches without conceding a goal.
But he feels the UEFA Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid should not be forgotten in a hurry, and believes European glory this season is a tough ask, ahead of United’s return to the continent’s elite club competition at home to Basel on September 12.
“It’s massive for the club [to be back in the Champions League, because that gives you another platform to bring in the players that you need,” Cole, who won the tournament in 1999, told reporters.
“That is what the fans want and what they expect at a club like Manchester United. So that is major as well. “It gets tougher and tougher to win that Champions League. If you look at the team that has won it two years on the bounce now, we played them in the Super Cup and I think you saw the gap there.
“There was a big gap between Real Madrid and Manchester United. And Real Madrid had some of their better players on the bench as well. “So to win that competition you are going to have to be in tip-top condition.”
Cole is also cautious about proclaiming United as Premier League favourites given the competitive nature of this season’s title race, despite his delight at their strong start.
“There’s a long way to go, it’s a marathon not a sprint,” he said. “You can’t say they are favourites for the title because they bought some good players. They finished sixth last season, yes they have brought in some really quality players, but the Premier League this season, there are six teams that could win it.
“United will be up there but I don’t think anybody in this moment in time could put a marker down because it is so up and down this league. “It’s a great return, 10 goals, none conceded, creating chances, scoring goals, looks like we’re playing half decent football. So yeah, I’m more than happy.
“Manchester City started as favourites and I don’t think people were really talking about Manchester United, but after the start people are saying [maybe], but it is a long, long way to go.”
Meanwhile, Manchester United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy is impressed with Romelu Lukaku’s start to life at Old Trafford. Van Nistelrooy, a striking great for United between 2001 and 2006, has been an interested observer of Lukaku since he signed for an initial fee of around £75million from Everton in July.
The Belgium international has scored three times in as many games as Jose Mourinho’s side have made a perfect start to the new Premier League season, while also netting in the UEFA Super Cup loss to Real Madrid.
Lukaku still has a long way to go to reach the 150 strikes Van Nistelrooy netted for United, but the Dutchman likes what he sees.
“He’s done great,” Van Nistelrooy, 41, told Sky Sports of Lukaku after scoring a penalty for United in a legends match against Barcelona at Old Trafford .
“To score in your first games here after you have been transferred for a lot of money, it is nice to get that pressure out of the way and get your first goals in.
“He has done well. Not only scoring but also providing, making his runs and doing his work. So it looks good for the season.”
Van Nistelrooy is well aware of the scrutiny Lukaku will come under this year and beyond. “There’s always pressure to score here – but that also makes it interesting, dealing with that,” he said.
“The goals are expected and if you don’t score there is a lot of talk about you not scoring. Then there’s pressure on the next game.” Van Nistelrooy is optimistic that United will be competing to win the top competitions under Mourinho this season, after finishing sixth along with EFL Cup and Europa League silverware in 2016-17.
“They had a great pre-season and continued that at the start of the league,” he said. “The only team with nine points, 10 goals and none against. They have had a wonderful start.
“The Champions League will start now so I’m very excited to see how they will do there. They look impressive at the moment and they can challenge this season for the big ones.”
As Kasper Schmeichel sprung to his right to beat away a penalty from Romelu Lukaku on Saturday, Manchester United supporters could have been forgiven for fearing the worst.
Their side may have burst out of the blocks with back-to-back 4-0 victories, earning them plenty of plaudits, but recent history has offered some harsh lessons when it comes to getting caught up in the emotion of a bright start.
Just last season, the Red Devils stumbled their way to a sixth-place finish in the Premier League on the back of 10 draws at Old Trafford.
inability to kill games off cost United dear, with Jose Mourinho’s side often struggling to break down stubborn resistance – a combination of poor finishing and bad luck conspired against them.
The sight of Lukaku grimacing as he saw his 52nd-minute spot-kick saved against Leicester will have brought painful memories flooding back for the United faithful, with it impossible not to wonder: ‘Is it happening all over again?’
Mourinho’s class of 2017-18 are, however, a markedly different animal to that which was tamed far too often last term.
Some 18 minutes after Lukaku failed from 12 yards out, Marcus Rashford turned home from almost the exact same spot – cue relief all round and a second bundled effort from Marouane Fellaini for good measure.
wins, nine points, 10 goals and three clean sheets – life is rosy at the Theatre of Dreams once again. Of course, it can be argued that United’s flying start to the season has been aided by the calibre of opposition they have faced – all in the bottom half of the table – but you can only beat what is put in front of you, and that proved tricky in 2016-17.
West Ham and Swansea both took points off the Red Devils last season, but both were swept aside with a minimum of fuss this time around. That is because United have been able to address the one glaring deficiency which held them back during Mourinho’s debut campaign – their lack of cutting edge. And, things could have been even better.
Last year, United ended the season with a rather dismal conversion rate of 12.36 per cent – a tally which placed them above just four sides, including all three of those that suffered relegation.
On home soil that figure dipped even lower to 10.7%, but this term it has soared back up to 22.22% while their overall effectiveness in front of goal has risen to 24.39% – the best in the division to date.
That is all very positive but, as mentioned, Mourinho knows that there is also the promise of more to come. Only arch-rivals City have squandered more ‘big chances’ than United’s haul of five this term, while no side has struck the woodwork on more occasions – three times for the Red Devils so far.
There is still clearly work to do, but United have found a way of getting the job done – much like they once did under a legendary former boss.
United legend Bryan Robson certainly sees similarities there, with the ex-club captain telling PA Sport: “It always depends on injuries throughout the year, but as far as I am concerned since Sir Alex Ferguson left this is probably the strongest squad that I’ve seen. We’ve got pace, we’ve got power, but we’ve also got quality players. That helps to try and win titles.”
Talk of top-flight crowns may be a little premature but United have been impressive without being faultless, and that should concern their fellow title hopefuls.
The Red Devils appear to have their mojo back and the rest of the division now need to find a way of reeling them in.
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