A strong defence is not a crime
Much had been made of Manchester United’s defensive – and perhaps unambitious – approach at Anfield last weekend and Jose Mourinho had clearly spent some time grumbling at those in the media in the intervening days. Needless to say, the 0-1 win in Lisbon, taking United to within one point of the last 16, gave him the perfect ammunition to hit back.
“Not that I read it a lot, but sometimes when I read the press, not only English but Portuguese, I feel that sometimes defending properly is seen as a crime but it is not,” he said.
“That’s why we controlled the game because we defended properly and the goal was not against the current of the game, but we end up ending the game and we are almost qualified so that’s it.”
United’s organised, disciplined approach has only been magnified further when viewed in contrast with Manchester City’s exhilarating start to the campaign, but Mourinho will be quick to note that there exists more than one way to win games.
And his side, whilst hardly entertaining, did exactly that with a solid, compact display. The Portuguese champions, despite enjoying a strong first 30 minutes, never looked like scoring and failed to force David de Gea into action even once. United now have nine clean sheets from 13 games this season and can be rightfully regarded as one of the best defensive units in Europe.
Marcus Rashford continues to deliver at important moments
Nothing was working for the visitors in the first half. The front four weren’t finding each other and constantly failing to time their runs, seeing the offside flag go up five times, and the midfield lacked any fluidity. Something had to change. Somebody needed to step up.
And with one minute gone in the second period, Rashford had planted the seeds for an improved second half display, timing his run perfectly to latch onto a through ball and test full-back Douglas. A smart move that saw Ander Herrera fire over came soon after. This was the start of a pattern, with the teenager leading the charge through a series of penetrating bursts down the left hand side.
He had the bit between his teeth, firmly in the special state of concentration and drive that hallmarks his best moments, and the teenager eventually proved to be the difference, catching 18-year-old keeper Mile Svilar out with a fizzing, angled free-kick that the Belgian carried over the line.
Supporters will desperately hope his knee injury is noting serious.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s form is a worry
The Armenian made a scintillating start to the campaign, claiming five assists in his first three games, but has since provided nothing aside from a couple of goals in thrashings of Everton and CSKA Moscow.
The Armenian was a blunt instrument in Lisbon, where constantly failing to control the ball or find teammates. He lashed a superb chance to break the deadlock over the bar in the first half and, aside from a few touches, had no real presence in the game.
Paul Pogba’s absence, along with the comparative lack of forward thrust in midfield, is clearly not helping Mkhitaryan’s cause, but the 28-year-old simply needs to offer more attacking enterprise over the next few weeks.
Romelu Lukaku shows his class
This was another difficult game for Lukaku, with Mkhitaryan’s inertia and the generally languid nature of the game precluding anybody from having many touches in the box, but he didn’t sulk at full-time.
Instead, he went straight over to Svilar, who had made his debut just four days ago and was now responsible for yet another galling Benfica defeat that all but ended their hopes of progressing to the next round in Europe. He had misjudged the flight of Rashford’s free-kick and, just like that, found himself under a global microscope.
The teenager was understandably inconsolable, apologising to the Benfica fans and looking decidedly sullen. But Lukaku, who experienced a similar feeling against Bayern Munich in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, was quick give the youngster a few words of support. His message would have been clear: keep your head up, keep fighting, and don’t look back.
It was a touching moment of humanity and an example of Lukaku’s maturity and class, even at the age of just 24.
Benfica aren’t what they used to be
Visits to the Estadio da Luz in the past were nightmarish: a 65,000 capacity crowd, red shirts streaming forward, that primal roar from the home crowd whenever Benfica scored. It was a lion’s den; there was nowhere to hide.
But the latest veneer seems almost lifeless. Benfica lost 13 players over the summer, haven’t won in six games, and find themselves closer to seventh than first in Primeira Liga. There is a palpable lack of confidence amongst those involved with the club and it was clear to see on Wednesday night, with the stadium half full and generally indifferent to what was a committed yet ineffective display from the home side.
United will be expected to roll over the Portuguese champions when they come to Old Trafford in a fortnight’s time.