Manchester United secured a routine 3-0 win over Stoke City at Old Trafford, cutting the gap to Manchester City at the top of the table to 12 points. Antonio Valencia and Anthony Martial both scored stunners to put United 2-0 up at half-time, and even though they had a host of chances to finish the game as a contest, Romelu Lukaku’s late goal was the icing on what was a perfect evening for the Red Devils.
Here are some of the talking points from the game –
Mourinho finds his first-choice side
This was United’s first league game in more than two weeks, since the New Year’s Day game against Everton. United took advantage of a free week following their defeat of Derby County in the FA Cup to jet off to Dubai for some warm weather training, and there was an undeniable freshness to the side during the game. More pertinently, Jose Mourinho seems to have used the break, and the hectic December period, to come up with his first-choice team. De Gea is the undisputed no 1 goalkeeper; likewise Antonio Valencia at right-back. More surprisingly, this was Luke Shaw’s fifth consecutive league start for United. Valencia’s injury and Ashley Young’s suspension have undoubtedly contributed to this; nevertheless, Shaw has taken the chance with both hands, with a series of impressive displays making it difficult for Young to dislodge him once he returns. Eric Bailly’s injury means Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the first-choice centre-back pair; a situation many had envisaged at the start of their United careers, but one that hadn’t materialized so far due to form and injuries. Pogba and Matic have been superb in midfield, while Anthony Martial has edged ahead of Marcus Rashford in the battle for a left-wing spot, with another superb display here being capped with a fine goal. Jesse Lingard is undroppable on current form, while Juan Mata has also had an impressive run of form on the right. Up front, Romelu Lukaku looks to be getting back his mojo after another goal to go with the one he scored against Derby. This was Mourinho’s starting XI against Stoke, and it looks like only the rumoured arrival of Alexis Sanchez, or further injuries and suspensions, will break this side up.
Pogba looking like a bargain
Jose Mourinho had leapt to Paul Pogba’s defence last season, in the face of criticism for some indifferent performances, by saying that soon his transfer fee would look like a bargain. How right he was; in the face of the fees paid for Neymar and Coutinho, as well as Kylian Mbappe’s impending transfer, the £89.3 million paid for Pogba looks like a steal. United have looked distinctly worse without him in the side; he bossed the game here as well, exhibiting his range of passing with some exquisite, pinpoint crossfield passes and through balls, and ended the game with two assists. Yes, his pass for Valencia’s thunderbolt could hardly be called an assist, but they all count, just like goals, and Pogba now has nine assists in the league, the same as the Manchester City duo of Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane, despite playing 13 games fewer. United simply have to ensure that their French talisman is fit and firing for the rest of the season, to have any chance of success domestically or in Europe.
Potential Sanchez arrival creates buzz
There was as much intrigue happening off the pitch as action on it, with the news that United are now in pole position to sign Alexis Sanchez causing a ripple of excitement amongst the United faithful. Sanchez is a bonafide superstar; he would undoubtedly raise the quality of United’s attack, and would slot in seamlessly, needing no adjustment to the Premier League. The rumoured fee makes the deal a bargain for a player of his quality, and even after wages are taken into account, United simply cannot let this opportunity slip. His arrival could potentially have the same impact as that of Robin van Persie; propelling the club towards a title tilt next season. The news that Henrikh Mkhitaryan could be a makeweight in such a deal was met with shrugged shoulders by most fans; the Armenian is talented, but has not shown his quality on a consistent basis, and Sanchez would be a definite upgrade on him. Mourinho did nothing to stop such rumours, stating before the game that Mkhitaryan had been left out of the squad due to the speculation around him. Alexis Sanchez’s capture would send out a signal to the rest of the league, and United must do all they can to bring the Chilean to Old Trafford.