Manchester United secured an FA Cup quarter-final tie with Brighton & Hove Albion in a manner that can only be described as straightforward.
Despite the build-up and aftermath being dominated by questions over Paul Pogba – a man who may or may not have recovered from illness in time for Wednesday’s trip to Seville – they never looked in danger for a moment against a determined, gutsy but ultimately limited, Huddersfield Town team.
They scored twice from lightning quick breakaways and might well have had a third were it not for the latest video assistant referee controversy. In many ways, this was the default Jose Mourinho performance: contained, controlled, efficient. And about as exciting as reading a washing machine instruction manual.
Still, Mourinho expressed a significant degree of satisfaction with what was achieved. Not least because, due to a sudden flurry of injuries – with Pogba succumbing to a bug on the morning of the match – apart from David De Gea, he was unable to give any of his players the weekend off ahead of the critical Champions League tie in Spain against Sevilla.
“Look, I didn’t rest one single player so we had every player available. I didn’t rest anyone, I brought two kids that played yesterday [Friday] 90 minutes because I don’t have another player,” Mourinho explained, in what may well have been a dig at Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who recently named only six substitutes against Burnley, insisting he couldn’t call up youth players because they had played the day before.
"Can we recover some of them for Wednesday? I believe so. I think [Marcus] Rashford, [Ander] Herrera and [Antonio] Valencia have a chance. Paul [Pogba] I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, [Fellaini], Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] – I don’t think they have any chance, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problem.” Mourinho was, understandably, frustrated by Pogba’s late withdrawl. Not least because he had planned to use him in apparently his favourite position – on the left of a midfield three – in a bid to help him recover some form and confidence as the business end of the season approaches.
Instead, the United manager was obliged to call on the services of the veteran Michael Carrick who, at 36, may be many things – calm, accurate, disciplined – but one for future he isn’t.
Still, the United manager will have noted one thing about the way his side brushed aside David Wagner’s team: Alexis Sanchez’s eye for a killer pass has not been dulled by his move from Arsenal.
The Chilean had spent much of the first half looking increasingly dispirited as his team-mates drifted ever deeper in their attempt to smother Huddersfield’s busy midfield probing. He could be seen constantly waving colleagues forward, when Mourinho might have hoped he had joined them in defensive duties. But just after half time, he took matters into his own hands and supplied the game’s one standout moment: a laser-guided return ball into the path of Romelu Lukaku, who barrelled forward and scored. The Belgian’s finish – as it had been when he latched on to an almost equally telling ball from Juan Mata after just three minutes for the opener – was not as true as he might have hoped.
Oddly, that worked to his advantage, as Jonas Lossl in the Huddersfield goal seemed to misread his shot, perhaps anticipating a clean strike.
Throughout his career, Lukaku has tended to score goals in patches. And if, with Sanchez providing a new supply of ammunition, he has rediscovered a scoring touch temporarily mislaid after his blistering start in a United shirt, his timing could not be better.
Certainly his midfield colleague Nemanja Matic, who spent much of the game scurrying and scrapping but seldom dominating possession, seemed relieved that the Lukaku mojo has resurfaced. “He is important for us,” Matic suggested. “It’s very important for his confidence that he is scoring goals and he is a great striker, very strong and he is still young, I am sure he will be important for us until the end of the season.”
As for Pogba, Mourinho said he had no clue if the Frenchman would be available for the European tie. He could only express hope that his midfield lynchpin enjoys a swift recovery.
While wildcat rumours circulated after their defeat at Newcastle United of a dressing-room bust-up were fanciful, there is no denying that the Frenchman has looked out of sorts of late.
While there is relief in the fact his main striker has rediscovered the route to goal, the manager knows that, without a fully committed, fully engaged Pogba, his chances of further advance in Europe are limited indeed.
- Published in International