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CSKA Moscow 1-4 Manchester United: Five things we learned

Jose Mourinho has a plan B

The Portuguese has previously emphasised the importance of his side being familiar with adopting a three at the back system at points throughout the season and it worked a treat in Moscow. CSKA lined up with a creaking back three including Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich, who are 35 and 38 respectively, and Mourinho, in response, pushed the devastating trio of Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan right up against them – virtually man for man, with right wing back Ashley Young creating space on the flank.

And the end result was emphatic. The hosts were pinned back and Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera exerted control in midfield, giving Mkhitaryan acres of space to inflict damage in the No.10 role.

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This was the first time United have used a back three since a pre-season win over Sampdoria in August and they looked fluid. Using such a system in the right way gives you a solid, dynamic shape and the visitors were able to build up quick transitions from defence to attack as a result.

Anthony Martial makes another splash

There may be attacking players in this United squad with more power, but nobody can get close to the sheer ruthlessness and tranquil precision offered by Martial going forward. The Frenchman was unstoppable in Moscow: too quick on the ball, too unpredictable, too confident.

He laid on an assist for Lukaku in the fourth minute, sending over a pin-point cross for the Belgian, before netting his fifth goal of the season from the spot 14 minutes later. That he would make a mockery of Igor Akinfeev in the process was never a doubt. Another assist for Lukaku followed, and by half time the entire encounter was over, decided emphatically by the lethal presence of Martial.

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Forget the notion that Martial is performing better than last season; this is the best he’s ever performed in a United shirt.

Champions League travel sickness is no more

United’s last away win in the Champions League came almost four years ago – a 5-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in December 2013 – and Mourinho would have known ahead of the game that removing this monkey from United’s back was imperative. They lost 2-1 to PSV Eindhoven, 3-2 to Wolfsburg and drew 1-1 with CSKA during their last dalliance with Europe’s elite and were deservedly knocked out.

This time around, however, they were rampant and utterly unflustered by the noisy CSKA home crowd, displaying the composure and organisation needed to sweep away a substandard home side. You sense that, following defeats away to Feyenoord and Fenerbahce last season, United have turned a corner on their travels.

Business as usual for Romelu Lukaku

It only took him four minutes. There was an element of foreboding ahead of Lukaku’s meeting with an ageing, frenetic defence and they were on their knees in no time, with the Belgian barging three defenders to one side and planting an unstoppable header in the right hand corner.

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And he wasn’t done there: an inviting ball from Martial and a mistake from Berezutski gave the 24-year-old one of his easiest goals in a United shirt so far just before half time. CSKA, like many sides before them, simply couldn’t cope with Lukaku’s physical presence and execution. He had put the result beyond doubt before any of them could blink.

Perhaps we should have never doubted that Lukaku would start this way, but very few could have predicted to see him reach double figures in September. At £75m, he is starting to look like a bargain.

United should easily win this group

Four points from their next two games – both against Benfica – would take United to the magic ten points normally sufficient for qualifying for the knockout stages

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It was thought that going up against Benfica and FC Basel – the two sides responsible for knocking them out of the group stages in 2011 – once again could present United with a series of deceptively frustrating encounters, but the opposite is proving to be the case. Mourinho’s men have dispatched Basel and CSKA, and will fancy their chances against a Benfica side that lost at home to the Russians on match-day one before being drubbed 5-0 by the Swiss champions.

Even seven points from their next three games – Benfica away, Benfica at home, Basel away – would be enough to give United a top spot finish and an easier last 16 opponent.

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By Leo Nieboer

Mourning the loss of Danny Welbeck

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