It may have taken the best part of eight months, but at long last José Mourinho’s Manchester United finally lived up the manager’s lofty billing. On Sunday, facing a side that once threatened to win the Premier League title with months to spare, Mourinho offered his most impressive performance of his short tenure in Manchester. There was little expectation of victory, but United pulled off an unlikely win. Thursday’s Europa League fixture with Anderlecht is a different proposition again.
What hope United supporters held of victory over Chelsea were diminished pre-match when the news of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s exclusion reached the stands. The move seemed to signal United’s capitulation, but it proved a masterstroke by the Portuguese tactician. What many assumed was a reprioritisation in favour of the Europa League, over the fight for fourth place in the Premier League, turned out to be one of the most brilliant decisions made by a United manager in recent seasons.
The speed and direct running offered by Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard left the famously impervious Chelsea back three confused and misshapen. And for a side that has managed to score 65 league goals, Chelsea’s creative force was nulled to perfection.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]What hope United supporters held of victory over Chelsea was quashed when the news of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s exclusion reached the stands. The move signalled capitulation, but it proved a masterstroke.[/blockquote]
United also ran the show in midfield where Ander Herrera was deployed as a tether to Eden Hazard. Wherever the Belgian wide-man traveled, Herrera was only a few steps behind. It was one of the Spaniard’s finest performances in red. Although Herrera’s role reprised the one Phil Jones was asked to play in the recent FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge, the result was very different.
Herrera augmented his defensive performance with a perfectly weighted pass to set up Rashford’s opener, as well as doubling United’s lead himself, albeit through a fairly hefty deflection. The former Athletic Bilbao midfielder deservedly secured the Man of the Match award, and in the wake of a truly inspirational performance calls have again been raised for the midfielder to become the next club captain when Wayne Rooney inevitably moves on in the summer.
That assessment may well hold weight. There are few move vocal players than Herrera, and few players with a better work ethic or passionate approach than a man who has given everything since joining the club in 2015. There are surely few players more deserving of the accolade.
Despite the victory United made little ground on the Premier League top four, with Liverpool and Manchester City both taking three points at the weekend. Mourinho’s team has games in hand, although can take nothing for granted on that front. But the Portuguese coach can hope that Sunday’s performance will be a launch pad for the remaining seven league games.
First, United hosts Anderlecht in the Europa League quarter-final second leg, with the fixture delicately balanced after a draw in Brussels last week. The Belgian side’s late equaliser was symptomatic of so many missed opportunities this season. Time to grab the spirit of victory over Chelsea and push forward on two fronts.
“It will be the perfect end to the season,” Mourinho said of a potential Europa League final.
“A difficult season, lots of matches, trying to build a team, trying to recover a certain mentality, trying to finish the season playing a European final. It will be the perfect finale for Manchester United.”
Following last Thursday’s draw against United, Anderlecht travelled to KV Oostende at the weekend, looking to add to the club’s burgeoning lead at the top of the Juplier Pro League. Paars-wit secured a 1-0 victory, courtesy of a second half Sofiane Hanni strike, leaving the Belgian giants in prime position to capture a first league title in three seasons.
Rene Weiler’s side is now six points clear at the top with only seven games to play and can treat the visit to Old Trafford as a welcome distraction rather than an unnecessary sideshow. It’s likely that the Belgian side can afford to take a few risks as the club attempts to reach the semi-finals of this competition for the first time since 1984.
“We have to believe and we do believe [we can win] but at the same time we have to be realistic,” said Weiler on Wednesday evening.
“We know we’re playing against a very high-level team. You only have to look at their performance last Sunday at home to Chelsea, I think they limited Chelsea to hardly any shots on target at all. They’ve had only three defeats in the entire season and in the last 22 games in the league they are unbeaten. They are very strong at the back and they’ve got some great individuals as well. We saw in the first leg what they could do and we know it’s going to be very hard.”
Mourinho plans to keep Sergio Romero between the sticks after the the Argentinian’s performance last week. David de Gea was given the nod for Sunday afternoon’s tie against Chelsea, but Romero has been utilised throughout the European competition. While De Gea is the safer option, Romero is competent enough that he’s become much less of a concern.
Mourinho is keen to dismiss the notion that Romero is his Europa League stopper – and it will certainly be interesting who retains the post should United reach the final.
“He was my goalkeeper in the other matches, but he’s not my goalkeeper for the Europa League. I never like to do that complete separation. I can say the priority for Sergio is to play in the Europa League, yes, but we had some matches where David played.
“David’s priority is to play in the Premier League but I don’t like the complete separation. I cannot say every match is for one or the other. The reality is that Sergio is very stable, he’s very experienced, he’s playing very well.”
United subs from: De Gea, Darmian, Blind, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Young, Lingard, Martial, Rooney
Anderlecht subs from: Roef, Najar, Adjei, Hanni, Spajic, Chipciu, Badji, Deschart, Capel, Doumbia
Wayne Rooney will make the bench following his four game absence, providing the striker comes through early training sessions positively. Luke Shaw could be in line for a return to the team after enjoying a little more game time in recent weeks.
Ibrahimovic and Henryk Mkhitaryan should return to the team after being omitted on Sunday. Anthony Martial failed to make the bench on Sunday and could find himself among Thursday’s substitutes.
Progression into the semi-finals is assured if United keep a clean sheet. Mourinho’s must capitalise on an impressive victory with something resembling momentum. It has not always happened this season. At the season’s end, something as simple as confidence could be the difference between United playing against Europe’s elite next year, or not.
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco
Assistant Referees: Raúl Cabañero Martínez, Diego Barbero Sevilla
Additional Assistants: Carlos Clos Gómez, José María Sánchez Martínez
Fourth Official: Roberto Alonso Fernández
United 2-0 Anderlecht