Following Manchester United’s disappointing draw against Liverpool at Old Trafford, José Mourinho desperately needed his team to get back on track in the Premier League. It wasn’t to be at Stoke City on Saturday. Any tie at Stoke is challenging, although Mourinho will feel it was one that United should have overcome. Juan Mata’s unfortunate own-goal, together with a string of missed opportunities at the other end, was hardly the way to get the Reds’ season back on course. Good job that Wayne Rooney was on hand to score a 95th-minute free kick, rescuing the day and lifting the striker to the top of the all-time United scorers list.
The pattern of Saturday’s game matched the traditional Stoke approach. ‘Nicking one and seeing the game out’ became a trademark tactic under Tony Pulis, although less so under Mark Hughes’ leadership. On Saturday, with Stoke compact and well organised after taking the lead, the home side made it particularly difficult for United to grab the breakthrough.
The Reds created plenty of chances. In fact Mata, who was adjudged to have touched the ball last en route to Stoke’s first, had a golden opportunity to equalise, only to sky his effort by some distance when just yards from goal.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]José Mourinho desperately needed his team to get back on track in the Premier League. It wasn’t to be at Stoke City. Good job that Wayne Rooney was on hand to rescue the day.[/blockquote]
In a frustrating afternoon, United fell into old habits. It took 25 attempts before an equaliser was found, with the visitors’ finishing continuing to be a point of concern this season – as it has been since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. With so many chances fluffed, Mourinho’s outfit is doing little to dispel supporters’ long-term worries.
There’s also plenty to be encouraged about, of course, in particular the manner in which United has salvaged two points in past two matches. In recent seasons the games against Liverpool and Stoke would have ebbed away into infuriating defeat. Instead, Mourinho’s team is demonstrating great resiliency, which certainly bodes well for the future.
The weekend draw preserves United’s unbeaten streak in all competitions, which now stands at 17 games, albeit with the nine-game winning run now broken. The focus on Thursday returns to the EFL Cup, and Mourinho’s quest to deliver silverware at the first time of asking. After securing a vital 2-0 lead in the first leg, progression to the first final of the Mourinho-era is widely expected.
The Tigers have discovered something resembling good form since the two sides last met. The relegation-threatened side has picked up three from a possible six, beating Bournemouth comfortably, before falling to league leaders Chelsea. Defeat at Stamford Bridge was marred by a serious head injury to midfielder Ryan Mason, who spent much of Sunday evening fighting for his life after suffering a fractured skull. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is in a stable condition, and understandably garnered the best wishes of supporters across the country.
To add to Marco Silva’s challenge, what quality Hull enjoy in a threadbare squad is already beginning the transition away from the relegation-threatened side. Silva faces a battle to keep his key players onside, with Jake Livermore on the move to West Bromwich Albion, and Robert Snodgrass seemingly on his way north to Middlesborough or to West Ham United.
The Portuguese tactician has at least secured some new faces this winter, with Oumar Niasse and Lazar Markovic opting to ply their trade on Humberside for the remainder of the season. Whether these signings will be enough to ensure Hull’s survive remains doubtful though.
Yet, while Silva is still finding his way in the league, the manager’s transition from Greek to English football has exuded confidence, if nothing else. Hull now has the look of a side that can at least compete over the second half of the season. Survival is the only objective and Silva appears to have a decent chance of getting close.
With the Ivory Coast now out of the African Cup of Nations, Eric Bailly will return to Manchester in the coming days, although Thursday’s game will come too soon. Elsewhere, United boasts a fully fit side and with an FA Cup tie against Wigan Athletic on the horizon, Mourinho may be inclined to feature something of a full strength team.
Michael Carrick is likely be preferred to Marouane Fellaini, whose 87th minute header secured a two goal cushion for United heading into this tie. The Geordie may join Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in the centre of the park, forming a trio that has worked to great effect this season.
Mourinho may rotate his myriad of attacking options though. Despite Mata’s fine goalscoring form in this competition, the Spaniard could make way for Jesse Lingard to earn some valuable game time, while Anthony Martial is in line to replace Henryk Mkhitaryan after missing out at the weekend. Mourinho continues to slowly coax something approaching last season’s form from the Frenchman.
Hull subs from: Marshall, Tymon, Elabdellaoui, Maloney, Henriksen, Mbokani, Evandro, Keane
United subs from: De Gea, Tuanzebe, Fosu-Mensah, Darmian, Blind, Fellaini, Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Ibrahimovic
Injuries continue to plague Hull at the back. Silva opted for a back three against Chelsea on Sunday, and may repeat the approach with United in town. Curtis Davies was replaced with a minor hamstring injury at the weekend, although should return to form a ‘solid if not spectacular’ back three alongside Harry Maguire and Michael Dawson.
David Meyler replaced the unfortunate Mason, and is likely to keep his place in the centre of the park, while Silva may opt to keep the bulk of his side unchanged. The new manager can be pleased with Hull’s recent performances, and will certainly want to keep the club moving forward.
By contrast, the job for Mourinho is silverware, and the Portuguese knows better than most the level of confidence an EFL Cup win would bring to his side. With the winner facing Southampton in the final, the trophy is certainly within reach. Success in United’s fourth choice tournament could well breed more in the future. The start, many hope, of a very fruitful 2017.
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistant Referees: Marc Perry and Andy Halliday
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson
Hull 0 – 2 United