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Rabbi Matondo & Man Utd: Why Ole wants him - and faces tough task convincing Schalke whiz

COMMENT: Whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is successful or not (and there'll need to be a lot of persuading to get this one over the line). Manchester United's pursuit of Rabbi Matondo does reaffirm one thing: this team will be built around pace - and bags of it...

Marcus Rashford has it. As does Daniel James. And even Anthony Martial can eat up the ground when he wants to. But that's not enough for Solskjaer. And beyond the trickery Matondo boasts. His versatility. And the knack of being a regular on the scoresheet. It is the pace the Schalke winger possesses which has Solskjaer seriously considering him for next season.

An alternative to Jadon Sancho? A cheaper version should Borussia Dortmund stick to their £100m valuation? Perhaps. But Matondo is no backup. No afterthought. He may not have the reputation of Sancho. The profile. But those inside British football - and beyond, as S04 showed - know full well the raw talent that is Rabbi Matondo.

He wasn't the first of his type to leave City in recent times. And he won't be the last. Sancho's the headliner. Matondo the second act. But Jaivaro Dilrosen, another winger, also jumped ship two years ago for Hertha Berlin. He's now a senior Holland international. And another Dutchman. Another attacking midfielder. Jayden Braaf. He has half of Europe chasing his signature as he contemplates cutting ties this summer.

So Matondo was never a project player for S04. He was signed to play. The Bundesliga may be healthy. And Schalke a massive club. But no German team are splashing out €9m on a whim. Especially not on an unproven 18 year-old still waiting for a first senior appearance - at any level.

But that's what Schalke did and 18 months on they have a player capable of matchwinning, inspirational moments. And off the pitch, a character who despite his youth, has become integral to the harmony of the dressing room.

Now a return to Manchester is beckoning. This time it's United - and on recommendation of his Wales coach, Ryan Giggs. In England, they're saying he's welcomed the interest. And why not? The chance to return home. To work with good friend and national teammate James. It's a pull for Matondo.

But the ties to Schalke run deeper than most. Certainly they're tighter than what Matondo felt for City. There's a loyalty the 19 year-old Scouser feels towards the club. And it's something that'll take a lot from United to break.

The crux of it comes from the support of sports director Jochen Schneider. It was Schneider who drove the deal to bring Matondo to the spectacular Veltins-Arena. It was he who championed Matondo as he began slowly with the club's second team. And it was Schneider who stood by the teen last season amid claims of abusing a stewardess on a flight from Portugal to Wales.

The press made the most of it - both in Germany and the UK. It was a scandal, apparently, with Matondo being escorted off the plane by police, who interrogated him on the spot. Another club. Another manager. And this would've dragged on and on. The normal 'internal investigation' and 'disciplinary action' phrases would've been trotted out, leaving Matondo's reputation hanging for public opinion to rule on.

Instead, Schneider did something almost unique in today's PR dominated age. He actually took the player's word. Saw nothing to pull apart. And simply moved on.

"I have known Rabbi personally for three months, his adviser much longer," said Schneider at the time. "I was not involved in the incident, but if both of them assure me that the story didn't happen that way, I believe them and I'm 100% behind Rabbi."

And that was it. Case closed. The story was over within 24 hours. Matondo left to get on with his football. Simple. Easy. But football clubs don't always act like that these days.

Matondo and those around him know this. And on the pitch, the player also has found an ally in David Wagner. The former Huddersfield Town manager giving the teen his chance this season.

"He has a special relationship with the whole team and knows how to deal with the players," says Matondo. "We play with a lot of confidence and a style that we didn't have last year."

And contributing to that style is Matondo. Where predecessor Huub Stevens saw the winger as an impact player, Wagner has leaned on the youngster. At 19, Wagner knows Matondo is still raw and far from the finished article. But he's playing him. And Matondo's game has come on leaps and bounds - literally. With his pace. His flair. Matondo is a crowd favourite. Long-time United fans would be right to liken him to the left-to-right goalscoring winger Danny Wallace. And while Wagner has no problem being critical of him in public, his confidence in Matondo's talent is shown by his selection.

"I know I'm now doing better," said the winger just before Christmas. "It's the little things I'm learning (from Wagner). Running more. Working back. Pressing harder."

Matondo has fast developed under Wagner's tutelage. And just as much a wrench it'd be to turn his back on Schneider, you fancy the same struggle will dominate Matondo's thoughts when it comes to his coach.

United's pursuit is no surprise. 12 months on from opening talks with Swansea City for James, they see the same potential in his Wales teammate. But Schalke isn't Swansea. And the Bundesliga isn't the Championship.

Rabbi Matondo offers everything Solskjaer seeks in an attacking player. But it's going to take a lot of persuading to convince the Liverpool lad about returning to the Northwest this summer.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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