Despite everything this season- the injuries, selling players in January and far too many home draws- this was a very good week for Manchester United. Jose Mourinho proved his managerial class against his former club Chelsea and United showed their dominance, albeit with room for improvement, in the Europa League.
Untied were drawn to face Anderlecht in the Europa League quarterfinals and travelled to Brussels for the first leg of the tie. The first time Manchester United faced Anderlecht in European competition, the Reds romped the Belgian side, winning 10-0 at Maine Road in 1956. Flying to Brussels on Wednesday, Mourinho had time to prepare a squad that could compete in Europe on Thursday and in the League on Sunday against Chelsea. Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Carrick, Mkhitaryan and Valencia all started, with Romero in goal and De Gea rested, but on the bench. United are favourites to win the competition, but Anderlecht put up quite the fight in the opening 20 minutes of match-play.
Teenage sensation Youri Tielemans- only 19 years old and captaining the Belgian side- proved a worthy adversary for Carrick and Pogba in midfield, and Anderlecht put pressure on the back four and Romero’s goal early on. But it was the visitors who found the net first, as Mkhitaryan capitalised on a miss-controlled save forced by Marcus Rashford’s shot on goal and hit the back of the net. United went into halftime with an away goal to the good, but the knowledge that they would need to do more ahead of the home leg the following Thursday.
Again, Anderlecht began the second half aggressively, forcing Romero to make a strong save in the 49th minute and causing Bailly and Rojo problems in central defence. United soon found their footing and were on the hunt for the second away goal, with Pogba missing a chance just wide of the target and Ibrahimovic having an effort saved by the hosts’ keeper. Later on in the match, after Martial and Fellaini replaced Lingard and Rashford, respectively, United found themselves losing too much of the ball in midfield, allowing the hosts to put pressure on again. In the 87th minute, Anderlecht’s perseverance paid off after a delicious cross from Obradovic found Leander Dendoncker at the six-yard box who heading in expertly. United were forced to accept the 1:1 draw, but go back to Old Trafford with an away goal and a record of straight wins in the Europa League at home this season.
It was no surprise that Jose Mourinho had to rotate the squad for Sunday’s meeting at Old Trafford with League-leaders Chelsea, but the extend to which he did so was surprising. De Gea started in goal and the midfield consisted of Pogba, Fellaini and Herrera, but the Boss started Rashford and Lingard up top as a two and sidelined Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan for this clash. Ashley Young wore the armband from the start and he and Antonio Valencia paired as wing-backs. All the pundits saw this line-up and declared that Jose was going to focus on the Europa League to get Champions League football and that United didn’t stand a chance against the hard-hitting Chelsea attack of Costa, Hazard and Pedro.
As it turns out, everybody was wrong except Mourinho. The pace of Rashford and Lingard created a nightmare for David Luiz and Gary Cahill, and Rashford found the net in a stunning effort following a perfectly timed and placed pass from Ander Herrera in the 9th minute to put United in the lead early. Believe it or not, that goal was the first within 20 minutes for United this season. From then on, Chelsea never threatened. In fact, the Blues failed to register a single shot on target all afternoon. The midfield of Herrera, Fellaini and Pogba were winning every second ball, every tackle, intercepting every pass that Chelsea could conjure up.
United were totally in control. Mourinho had Ander Herrera man-marking Eden Hazard the entire match, neutralising the threat of the Belgian play-maker and eliminating a channel of passing. Rashford and Lingard will have caused David Luiz and Cahill nightmares last night, and Pogba and N’Golo Kante were engaged in a battle for all 90 minutes that saw the Chelsea midfield man rendered ineffective throughout the match. Mourinho completely outclassed his counterpart in the away dugout, and United thoroughly “controlled Chelsea” throughout, in the United manager’s words. One goal wasn’t enough for Mourinho’s men, however, as Ander Herrera added United’ second and his first goal in the Premier League since February 2016 in the 49th minute after a strong second-half start and a deflection off Kurt Zouma. Carrick came on to replace Lingard, Ibrahimovic to replace the prolific Rashford, and Fosu-Mensah to replace captain-for-a-day Young, who was excellent.
Ander Herrera rightly won the Man of the Match award from United fans on Twitter. He was absolutely superb at marking Hazard, had an assist and a goal and his passes and tackling were perfect. However, Eric Bailly and Rashford could have easily won the MOTM award as well. Darmain and Valencia too. Really, all XI players on the pitch were excellent- even De Gea, who didn’t need to make a save all game. Mourinho showed the world why he is indeed the ‘Special One’. Though in 5th place, United are but four points behind Manchester City in 4th with a game still in hand, and a match against City next Thursday. The top four is still indeed possible, and with the home leg of the Europa League quarterfinal against Anderlecht on Thursday, so it lifting that trophy. United will then travel to Burnley for a Premier League meeting and then visit rivals City at the Etihad the following Thursday, 27 April. Come on, you Reds!