United went into the home game with CSKA Moscow as more or less qualified barring a freak result. In fairness the atmosphere seemed to reflect that scenario with Old Trafford not quite as noisy as it can be on big European nights, I got the feeling that everyone was in preparation mode for the big derby on Sunday. Mourinho wanted to go out and secure qualification in the right way and more importantly keep the momentum from the last 2 big away wins.
There was a pleasant update pre-match with the news of Luke Shaw back in the starting line-up which should have given all United fans a feeling of excitement as most have been wondering whether they would ever see it again. Shaw remains one of the most promising left backs in the league let alone at the club and with rumours resurfacing of a bid for Danny Rose in January, Shaw’s inclusion was timely and hopefully not just an effort to get him in the shop window. Shaw was one of 6 changes from the win at Arsenal and unsurprisingly Paul Pogba was not one of them. What was surprising was the decision to remain with the 3 at the back which had seen United secure wins against Watford and Arsenal who play the same way, but we normally see the re-introduction of a conventional back 4 when up against the same. Whether it will be deployed again on Sunday remains to be seen but for now this seems Mourinho’s favoured system and based on the attacking display on Saturday evening I can understand why.
It didn’t take long for that attacking threat to continue, with Romelu Lukaku, as he did at the Emirates, showed some really neat hold up play and clinical pass to play in his new strike partner, Marcus Rashford, whose left footed effort came back off the right hand post. United were comfortable and were knocking the ball around with ease creating the odd chance but without getting out of first gear. Rashford looked bright and was beating his marker for fun without really producing the final ball and was once again denied a goal but this time by the hand of Igor Akinfeev, following neat play by Juan Mata. Shaw also looked to be in peak fitness, displaying some serious pace in attack and defence down the left flank of United. It was him who had United’s other good chance of the half, coming in back post to volley a Antonio Valencia cross towards goal only for it to be saved once more by Akinfeev and Lukaku was unable to turn home the rebound. A couple of minutes later, Shaw once again showed his attacking intent to get in behind CSKA but unfortunately failing to pick out Rashford for a certain goal at the back post.
As the half ticked away, United seemed to be winding down towards half time when right on the stroke of it they were hit with a sucker punch from CSKA who scored completely against the run of play. A break down the right saw Mario Fernandes play a pass to Vitinho about 15 yards from goal. His shot was weak but struck Alan Dzagoev on its way in who seemed to be in an offside position. Daley Blind was off the pitch but due to the change on the law, he was deemed to be playing Dzagoev onside, the goal stood and an already fairly quiet Old Trafford was plunged into silence.
United continued to dominate after the break and played with a little more intent than they did in the first and CSKA simply could not handle them, failing to get any foothold in the game. For 20 minutes it was all one way traffic and on 64 minutes United were level. Pogba, as he has been so often this season, was once more the architect, his left footed chip over the top that found Lukaku’s run was exquisite but the Belgian showed his power to hold off the defender and guide the ball past Akinfeev. Hopefully the start of a new run of goals for Lukaku, who has shown glimpses in recent weeks of growing into a new role of playing with a second striker. Just a minute later saw United take a deserved lead as Lukaku flicked on to Rashford whose initial touch was cut out but fell nicely for Mata who deftly lofted the ball back into Rashford’s path for him to volley, left footed, into the bottom right hand corner. With his team in front, comfortable and one eye on Sunday, Mourinho took the opportunity to rest some important players. Ander Herrera was first off for Scott Mctominay, closely followed by Valencia and Lukaku for Axel Tuanzebe and Anthony Martial respectively. The chances dried up as United cruised towards the final whistle and the last 16 but it was very much job done for Mourinho’s men.
The night was played out with the inevitability of United qualifying, but there were certainly more positives to be taken from the game, mainly from those players who will be so important to Mourinho in the coming weeks. The biggest plus has to be 90 minutes of football for Shaw and how impressive he looked after so long out. Lukaku’s goal will also provides a well timed boost ahead of the biggest game of the season so far. However much Mourinho wanted to convince us he takes it one game at a time, tonight was never the main focus and now all eyes will return to Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon for the real crunch tie.