Manchester United took control of Champions League Group A with a resounding 4-1 win over CSKA Moscow on Wednesday night. Here are five quick thoughts on the match.
A dominant first half
Most observers pegged Wednesday’s match as a tricky one for Manchester United. With a 1,500 mile journey, the famously chilly Russian weather, and the best CSKA Moscow side a José Mourinho-coached team had ever faced (or at least so he claimed), returning to Manchester with all three points looked a challenge. Moscow had already shocked Benfica in its Group A opener and surely relished a shot at a shorthanded United. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Coming out in a 3-4-3 formation, United were a class apart from the opening whistle. The front three of Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ran their CSKA counterparts ragged and the rest of the squad pressed and harried at every opportunity. By the time the smoke cleared at halftime, Manchester United held a commanding 3-0 lead and complete control of the match.
Afterwards, Mourinho praised the first-half ruthlessness shown by his players. “We made it look easy. We started so strongly, I think we surprised them with our attitude. We killed the game.”
What a difference a year makes
It might be hard to remember now, but Manchester United had trouble scoring goals last season. So many points were lost as the club labored to put lesser opposition away with profligate attacking play. Thankfully, that problem looks to be in the rearview mirror. This United side scores goals for fun, with Wednesday’s two star men — Lukaku and Martial — leading the way.
Lukaku kicked off the scoring with a 4th minute header — just the first moment of magic in what was a dazzling half of football. He grabbed a second after a colossal CSKA Moscow defensive blunder left the Belgian marksman alone in front of goal. His hat trick looked assured early in the second half, only for Igor Akinfeev to rob Lukaku of that milestone. Nonetheless, he now has ten goals in his first nine matches in a red shirt — including three already in his young Champions League career.
Martial, meanwhile, played a part in all four United goals. He notched assists on both Lukaku goals, converted a penalty by smoothly sending Akinfeev the wrong way, and Mkhitaryan’s score came off the rebound of a wicked Martial strike. He was rampant throughout and continued to stake a claim for more playing time by creating chances and not giving the Moscow defense a moment to catch its breath.
Most importantly, he has emerged on the other side of José Mourinho’s tough love a far better player. Post-game, his manager was full of compliments for the Frenchman: “He is understanding and appreciating what I want. He had lots of freedom and lots of support, lots of quality around him too. I’m happy.”
While last year too often saw Manchester United ruing missed chances and tough-luck draws, 2017/18 has been full of goals and putting teams to the sword. Long may it continue.
With Paul Pogba still sidelined indefinitely with a bad hamstring, United could ill afford further absences in midfield. Unfortunately, both Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini were left out of the traveling squad after being bitten by the injury bug. Being so shorthanded in midfield surely played a part in the team’s 3-4-3 formation on Wednesday night, as it allowed the team to play with a midfield two of Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera. And even Matić had been a slight doubt after limping off the field after the Southampton match.
Both Matić and Herrera played the full ninety minutes in Moscow, keeping it simple and allowing United’s torrid front three to wreak havoc. It may not have been a perfect night for the club’s makeshift midfield, but it was definitely a gutsy and determined one.
Three at the back
Another player nursing an injury back in Manchester was Phil Jones. Missing one of his first choice center-backs, Mourinho juggled the defense and started with a back three and two wing-backs. Victor Lindelöf, Chris Smalling, and Eric Bailly (making his Champions League debut) were flanked by captain Ashley Young and Daley Blind.
How did it turn out? Well, it was a mixed bag. Just moments after Lukaku headed the club into the lead, a defensive mixup nearly allowed an immediate equalizer. Only the quick hands of David De Gea saved United’s blushes. Later in the half, the goalkeeper again came to the rescue with a ridiculous reflex save. United’s luck ran out, though, and a late lapse finally scuttled the clean sheet. If not for De Gea, CSKA Moscow could have scored a few more.
Hat tip for Igor Akinfeev
Manchester United supporters will remember Akinfeev as a longtime target for the club during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. On Wednesday, he reminded everyone of his quality with a stunning performance in goal. Yes, United put four past him — but it could have been much, much worse.
For most of the match, it was one way traffic with the men in red peppering the Russian goal with shots. Akinfeev pulled off six saves — most of them spectacular — on close-range chances that looked surefire scores. Anything less than a standout performance from the Moscow man might have meant United scoring in double digits.