Casemiro’s winning mentality crucial to Man United’s hopes in FA Cup final

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Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes, centre right, and Harry Maguire, second from left, hold the trophy during celebration as they won the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Wembley Stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON (AP) — A few concerns were raised when Brazil midfielder Casemiro completed his move to Manchester United in August.

Would he still have enough motivation after nine trophy-filled years at Real Madrid?

Could he adapt quickly enough to the English game?

Was a 30-year-old defensive midfielder really worth $60 million and a reported weekly wage of $435,000?

The answers, without doubt, have been yes, yes and absolutely yes.

Take away Erling Haaland and the signing that had the biggest impact in English soccer this season is surely Casemiro, who — in the words of his coach — has exceeded expectations “by far.”

“He keeps surprising you,” United manager Erik ten Hag said. “He’s such a brilliant football player.”

If there’s one player Ten Hag would want to have available for the FA Cup final against Manchester City on Saturday, it’s Casemiro.

Quite simply, the difference with and without him is huge.

Casemiro started 24 of United’s 38 league games this season, and was a substitute in four others. According to statistics compiled by the Who Scored website, United conceded an average of less than a goal a game when Casemiro was in the team and 1.5 goals when he wasn’t.

He made 3.2 tackles per game in the Premier League, the third highest behind Fulham’s Joao Palhinha and Leeds’ Tyler Adams.

United conceded 57 goals in the league last season. With Casemiro stationed in front of the defense, that number was down to 43 this season as United secured a return to the Champions League and all the riches that brings.

So, yes, Casemiro really was worth it.

Ten Hag noted upon arriving at United at the end of last season that a leader in central midfield was the biggest thing missing in a team which had been getting by with an oft-maligned “McFred” (Scott McTominay and Fred) axis.

“We studied this and we searched for this — it was not easy because there aren’t many in the profile who fits to the standard of Manchester United,” Ten Hag said, before listing what Casemiro brings. “We know him as very good with organization, anticipation, winning duels, fighting and keeping the team together. But in possession, his passing distribution and finishing is very important.”

More than that, his winning mentality — fostered at Madrid, where he won five Champions League titles and the Spanish league three times — is something United had been missing in the post-Alex Ferguson era.

It has that now and it’s mostly because of the arrival of Casemiro and another former Madrid player, Raphael Varane.

“The pressure is something we are used to playing with. And we need the pressure — it’s not that kind of pressure that limits you,” Varane said.

“Sometimes quality is not enough — you need the motivation, character, passion on the pitch, because in the top level in the Premier League, there are good players in any team. But to play in this kind of clubs you need something else … something different, that character to fight, to assume the responsibility, to never hide on the pitch, to be ready to face every challenge you can.”

That’s the mentality City has built under Pep Guardiola, who — after seven years in charge — has a team on the brink of winning the Premier League-FA Cup-Champions League treble. It’s a feat only achieved once in English soccer before, by Man United in 1999.

Casemiro is one of the few players in the current United team who could slot into City’s lineup and not look out of place.

Often a player for the big occasion at Madrid, Casemiro stepped up for United by scoring the opening goal in its 2-0 win over Newcastle in the English League Cup final at Wembley Stadium in February.

And he has been key in the final stretch of the season in helping United qualify for the Champions League with a third-place finish in the league, notably with an acrobatic volley to score a crucial winner at Bournemouth.

Two red cards — one for grabbing an opponent by the neck in an on-field melee against Crystal Palace and the other for a reckless tackle — have blotted his campaign and caused him to miss seven matches in total through suspension. He left the field in tears after the second sending-off and was defended by Ten Hag, who preferred to criticize the standard of refereeing rather than the indiscipline of Casemiro.

It’s Casemiro’s defensive duties that will be most important against City on Saturday because he’ll need to keep a leash on attacking center midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne while also playing a part in stopping the supply line to Haaland.

Casemiro’s teammates are sure that won’t be beyond him.

“He can control a game great for us,” United defender Victor Lindelof said, “with or without the ball.”

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