Manchester United shook off the disappointment of their midweek Champions League exit to some extent, with an ultimately comfortable 2-0 win over Brighton at Old Trafford, which sent them into the FA Cup semi-finals. Romelu Lukaku opened the scoring with a header from Nemanja Matic’s pinpoint cross in the first half, and the Serb capped off a fine night’s work by heading the second goal in, in front of the Stretford End, to seal the game.
Three of the biggest talking points from the game are provided below:
Mourinho’s favourites come through
The game had been preceded by the managers’ press conferences on Friday, where Jose Mourinho launched into a passionate defence of his record so far. In a 12-minute monologue, the Portuguese cited what he called “football heritage”, to show that United’s record in Europe has not been that great over the last seven years, and that by extension Tuesday’s elimination to Sevilla was more of the same. He also used the same argument to lay out the difference in quality in terms of the squad he inherited to that inherited by Pep Guardiola across the city, implying the greater rebuilding job he has had. He name checked Matic and Lukaku, along with David de Gea, as players who would be at the club after he leaves, with greater experience and mental strength. Indeed, Lukaku and Matic have been almost undroppable this season, as Mourinho looks at them as his on-field lieutenants, a fact alluded to by both players in the press this season. On what could have been an awkward night for United, it was these two players who came through for their manager and the club. Lukaku continued his brilliant goal scoring run, netting his 25th of the season when Matic swung in a perfect first-time cross from the left, leaving the Belgian with a simple header from yards out. It would be Matic who would secure the game, heading across goal into the far corner from Ashley Young’s free kick about seven minutes from time in the second half. While Mourinho’s bigger-name purchases, namely Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba were left out of their manager’s pre-match comments as well as the starting XI for this game, his two trusted deputies got the job done at Old Trafford, at the end of a difficult week for him.
Shaw’s treatment baffling
Luke Shaw got a long-overdue start at left-back in this game, as Ashley Young was rested. Fans would have hoped he would be able to take this chance to convince Mourinho of his quality; instead, Mourinho spent the first half mostly on Shaw’s case, screaming and gesticulating towards the far touchline where Shaw was located, and when the teams re-emerged from the Old Trafford tunnel for the second half, it was with Ashley Young replacing Shaw. Shaw had a good run in the side earlier this season, when he started four games in a row over the turn of the year. Mourinho had even referred to Shaw as the “best left-back in the world” over that period, although that may have been tongue-in-cheek; nevertheless, the former Southampton player looked to have won over Mourinho to an extent. However, Mourinho was scathing in his criticism after the game, basically stating that both Shaw and Antonio Valencia had not been offensive enough in the first half, but at least Valencia had been defensively solid, whereas Brighton were able to get some joy down the left flank, thereby making Mourinho substitute Shaw. Although United have triggered an extension to Shaw’s contract, that is probably to ensure they get some sort of a fee for him, as it now looks unlikely that he will remain at Old Trafford beyond this summer, especially after his hopes of making England’s World Cup squad have been reduced to near-zero.
FA Cup is just a sweetener
While no trophy can be dismissed in this hyper-competitive space that the English top-flight is in at the moment, the truth is that an FA Cup win would do little to enhance Jose Mourinho’s standing amongst the United faithful. That is not to say that he does not enjoy the fans’ support or that an FA Cup win would not be welcome; his name was sung loudly at various points during the game by the Stretford End and the new singing section being trialled in a bid to improve the atmosphere at the ground, while fans would love it if the club wins a 13th FA Cup this season. But the stunning rise of Manchester City this season, coupled with United’s exit from the Champions League, means that the FA Cup is viewed as something of a consolation, much like it was when United last won it two seasons ago under Louis van Gaal. In a season where United would be competing for the league and/or were in the later stages of the Champions League, the FA Cup would be the least of the fans priorities; it is only now that United’s season suddenly revolves around the competition. Jose Mourinho must know this; while a win would be a nice way to end the season, adding silverware to the trophy cabinet and providing a fitting send-off for club captain Michael Carrick, United need to be a lot closer in the running for the title next season for Jose’ popularity to increase around the red half of Manchester. The only reason his style of football is tolerated is because it can get results; once that fails to happen, things can unravel very quickly for the United boss.