Our Rich (@richardcann76) is unavailable this week, so Iwan (@iwanlehnert) is filling in for The Week at United! Time to cast a glance at United’s Europa League draw with FC Rostov and an FA Cup quarter final exit at the hands of Chelsea.
Never liked the FA Cup, anyway. Tinpot trophy.
But before we get to the part where we delightfully fob off England’s premier club competition, let’s cast our minds back to last Thursday’s antics in deepest Russia, or lack of antics thereof.
Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with FC Rostov was mostly unwatchable. At the risk of sounding like Excusey-McExcusyson, the pitch in Russia was awful, and what started off as an exercise in football-watching tedium progressed to palpable discomfort before ending somewhere near Meh Town. As lovely as Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s first half strike was, set up by Zlatan Ibanhimovic, United couldn’t muster up much in the way of fluency, which isn’t too much of a surprise considering that the pitch was about as playable as a VHS cassette without the tape. The away goal was a comfort, and given the awkward conditions and travel, escaping Russia with no trouble, no injuries and an away goal to take back to Old Trafford for Thursday’s second leg was enough to warrant satisfaction.
And those blankets were a nice touch, too.
After several solid months in the heart of United’s defence alongside Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones has contracted the yips again. Or rather, his yips were merely hiding, waiting for an opportune injury to strike. To be fair, we’ve seen worse defensive errors than the two that led to Aleksandr Bukharov’s second half goal, but take your pick for worst offence, be it failing to play the offside trap or failing to track the runner from Timofei Kalachev’s ball over the top. Having conceded the penalty that let Bournemouth back into United’s last Premier League game, Jones is showing too many Hyde-like signs of late to suggest that Jekyll has full control over his body’s tendency to…well, muck up.
But, given the severe awkwardness that surrounded this fixture, having an away goal to take back home was enough. Now, let us never speak of that decrepit slice of sport again.
The build up to Monday’s FA Cup quarter final with Chelsea wasn’t exactly ideal. Zlatan’s ban didn’t help matters, of course, and Wayne Rooney’s collision with Jones in training a few days beforehand cost the United captain a place on the bench (presumably). Anthony Martial, despite popping up as a second half substitute against Rostov picked up an injury of some description that ruled him out, and with the news that Marcus Rashford had an “illness”, the mind was racing to conjure up an effective United starting XI that could damage Antonio Conte’s team in some way despite the absence of a striker.
As it turned out, The Boy Rash was more than fit enough to play 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge, and may have had a far more interesting night had United kept a full contingent of players.
The world and his dog were convinced that, with a line-up that looked something akin to a 3-5-2 that United would simply sit back and hit Chelsea on the counter, but they stunned everyone by playing a relatively positive first half hour. They limited Chelsea to two clear opportunities, and posed a few interesting questions of their own, all the while fouling Eden Hazard at any given opportunity.
Speaking of which, I’m not sure I’ve found any United player as comically endearing as Ander Herrera. His first booking, for essentially playing the part of a brick wall in front of Hazard was about as blatant and calculated as you’ll see, timed to perfection and for maximum disruption, yet he still protested vehemently when the yellow card was produced. From that point onwards, given that Jose Mourinho had clearly given his team an instruction to ‘unsettle’ the Belgian, there was a palpable feeling that Herrera was skating on thin ice. As with his red card against Burnley, which was less-than clear cut, there was an inevitability about seeing everyone’s favourite midfield whippet get his marching orders.
Was it a second yellow card? Probably not. Conventional wisdom in that scenario suggest that Michael Oliver could have given him a final warning after he fouled Hazard again, and that would have been sufficient. But on the other hand, Oliver had just spoken to captain-for-the-night Chris Smalling about persistent fouling on the same player about 5 seconds previously, and had clearly had enough. From my perspective, any time you’re on a booking and you made a challenge like Herrera did, you’re playing with fire, and this occasion, he ended up with a solid burn.
So. Harsh? Yes. Avoidable? Also yes.
The red card did kill the game as a contest somewhat. Mkhitaryan was instantly pulled from the firing line, presumably with Thursday night in mind, and Marouane Fellaini came in to provide midfield with some presence. He did fine, to be fair. Marcos Rojo, who may be in trouble for a less-than palatable stamp on Hazard in the second half, and Antonio Valencia were also excellent, and United coped with the numerical disadvantage well, for the most part.
N’golo Kante’s goal sticks in the craw a little, purely because Paul Pogba could have done a bit more to prevent it, but Chelsea controlled the game with relative ease after Herrera’s red. Speaking of Pogba, he endured a rough evening, looking every inch a player who missed pre-season and has played a stupid amount of games this term. It’s pretty easy to sum up the situation that surrounds him at the moment; he had a bad game against Chelsea and people are expecting more out of him, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He also arrived at United without a pre-season, has played a veritable buttload of games under Mourinho and is still missing the sort of set-up and support that saw him consistently thrive at Juventus. It’s also worth remembering that Pogba had a delicious few months for this team earlier this season, so perhaps a dip in form given United’s fixture list shouldn’t be too surprising. Either way, even with that £89m albatross around his neck, he’ll be fine.
Mourinho was in fine, fine form. Dan Walker was egging him on substantially in his post-match interview with the BBC, admittedly, but the manager saying “I told the referee many congratulations” at full time had me in stitches. Clearly, his commitment to salty comedy knows no bounds.
As for United, it’s tough to suggest that an exit at the hands of Chelsea at the quarter final stage is a huge blow. Given the run that Conte’s team have been on, few were expecting a win, especially given United’s atrocious record at Stamford Bridge, and Herrera’s dismissal made the task all the more difficult. Marcus Rashford’s mazy run and shot was the highlight of a difficult night from our perspective, other than Rojo’s compelling personal battle with Diego Costa, and whilst it’s never nice to exit a competition at this stage, or to lose to Chelsea in general, United have no time to feel sorry for themselves. Not with Rostov in town this week.
The idea of the Europa League becoming of intrinsic value to this season still feels a little bit alien, but given how wayward United’s Premier League form has been, there’s really no avoiding its status as a primary objective. Not that Mourinho will be content to politely fob off domestic duties, as he appears incapable of such behaviour, but Europe’s secondary cup competition now arguably represents United’s best route to Champions League football next season.
Course, it also represents another sparkly trophy, one that the club has never actually won before, but still.
Thursday night’s game will be a struggle. Zlatan will return, and given that his ability, strength and height would have been of great advantage against Chelsea when the game turned last night, his presence will be appreciated. It’ll be a case of getting the job done; no more, no less. Rostov suggested that they could pose United enough of a problem to unsettle them, but on a functional pitch at home, there shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t see this tie out, and take a place in the quarter finals.
A trip to the Riverside beckons on Sunday lunchtime too, which is rarely a comfortable experience. Given how the Bournemouth match went, nothing should be expected nor taken for granted when it comes to this side and winning-games-against-teams-that-we-should-beat, but United simply have to find a route through Middlesbrough, however they can. Simple as that.
So, two must-win games on the horizon before the next international break it is, then. See you on the other side.