Well, that was annoying. Manchester United nearly made relatively light work of a potentially tricky away tie, and nearly made a significant step towards the semi-finals of the Europa League. Though the performance was never going to go down as one of United's more thrilling European away days, it was nearly a professional and dominant showing that nearly brought a win.
On the plus side, an away goal's an away goal.
For the first ten minutes, it looked as though United were in for an awkward evening. In their home stadium, Anderlecht have recently beaten Tottenham and hugely inconvenienced Arsenal, and they started brightly. Youri Tielemans and Bruno asserted themselves in midfield, and Frank Acheampong looked to unsettle Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo with quick direct running.
But United shook off the cobwebs and took control, and Jose Mourinho's decision to flank Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the pace Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard nearly paid dividends after fifteen minutes. Rashford put in a curling cross from the left side of the penalty area and United's no. 9 was only denied by an excellent save from Rubén. Lingard was first to the rebound, poking goalwards with his studs, but the ball came back off the post.
It was one-way football from that point on, and the only question was if United, so often wasteful this season, could turn their possession into tangible reward. Michael Carrick, luxuriating in space, nearly released Rashford through the middle with a booming 70-yard pass. A scrambling Kara Mbodji made a vital block, and then another minutes later, following intricate interplay from Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimović and Lingard.
The breakthrough eventually arrived just after the half hour. Paul Pogba, tricky and imperious throughout, clipped a pass into the feet of Ibrahimović, who sent an instant ball out to the right wing. Antonio Valencia pinged a first-time cross into the feet of Rashford, who directed a firm shot towards the far post. Again Rubén saved well, but Mkhitaryan was quickest to the rebound and poked home from a tight angle. United had their away goal; on the bench, Mourinho and Rui Faria pumped their fists.
The second half began much like the first: Anderlecht came at United early on and looked briefly dangerous. Valencia, in the space of one minute, had to hook a deflected shot clear, block the follow-up with his face, and then somehow avoid committing a foul as he swarmed over the back of Acheampong. He managed all three admirably. Then the home side shrank back into themselves as United took control of the ball.
As the game wore on Anderlecht began to take their frustration out on United's players: Rashford was hacked down in full flight by Ivan Obradović, and Isaac Thelin jumped through the back of Michael Carrick. Chances were scarce, though Mkhitaryan flicked a first-time shot just past the post after good work from Pogba and Darmian.
Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini came on for the later stages; the latter, briefly an Anderlecht youth player, was given a reception concordant with his time at Standard Liege. He nearly threw the boos back in the crowds face, but a wickedly swerving, possibly deflected shot from the edge of the area was just about palmed clear by Rubén.
Then, just as the game began to wind down and thoughts began to turn to the second leg next week, Anderlecht nabbed their equaliser. Obradović threw in a deep cross from the left and the wonderfully named Leander Dendoncker got the jump on Matteo Darmian and powered a firm header past a helpless Sergio Romero. A late United flurry came to nothing, and the sides finished even.
Once again, United failed to score the goals that their possession might have merited; once again, they drew a game they could easily have won. But an away goal's an away goal. And European football is a game of four halves.