For their first UEFA Champions League knockout match in four years, Manchester United “entertained” fans with yet another underwhelming performance. The Red Devils did not earn their 0-0 draw against Sevilla yesterday afternoon. However, the visitors will have three weeks to prepare for round two at Old Trafford on March 13th. Let’s break down the five key takeaways from round one.
We must protect David De Gea at all costs
David De Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world. Every United fan remembers the De Gea save that caused them to award the Spaniard that honor. Just this year alone, there are several matches that United had no business winning; however, when you’ve got a spry 27 year-old octopus moonlighting as a goalie, you’re in good hands. While this performance wasn’t the best of his career, or this year, his sensational save late in the second half to deny Sevilla the opening goal will undoubtedly be the motivation behind United’s resurgence next month.
Mourinho’s tactics continue to frustrate opponents
The Red Devils return to Old Trafford with two slight benefits: home field advantage and of course, David De Gea. With 24 shots, eight of which were on goal, Sevilla should have easily entered this second leg with plenty of bragging rights. Leave it to The Special One to not only frustrate the Spanish team, but also deflate their ego as they travel to Mourinho’s stomping grounds. As the match progressed, it was clear that the conversation turned to less of United’s poor form, and more of the host’s frustration in bagging one against the English club. In order to catch United off guard, the La Liga club will have to control the match from kick-off, piling on immense amounts of pressure to catch the defense off-guard.
The Pogba-Mourinho feud has run its course
Last week, I argued that Mourinho’s mismanagement of midfielder Paul Pogba was costing United points. After a mystery illness that sidelined Pogba from last weekend’s FA Cup victory against Huddersfield Town, the Frenchman was again surprisingly benched in favor of Ander Herrera in yesterday’s clash. Seventeen minutes in, however, United’s most expensive player would enter the match to replace Herrera, as he limped off the pitch with a hamstring strain. While the club-record signing’s display would come earlier than expected, the damage was already done. United offense was collapsing, and Sevilla exposed the out of form midfield so early that there was nothing to be desired from his substitution. The rift Mourinho and Pogba have towards each other is hurting the team, and intensifying unnecessary summer transfer rumors. With a weekend Premier League showdown against Chelsea looming, it’s time that the two settle whatever differences they have and focus on bringing a trophy to Old Trafford.
All-star attack continues to struggle
José Mourinho may have beaten Pep Guardiola in the race to sign former Arsenal forward Alexis Sánchez, but it appears that after several matches in his new kit, audiences still fail to see what benefit he adds to the starting XI. Sánchez’s signing has come at the expense of Martial and Rashford, two players who have hastily increased in both form and value since arriving at Old Trafford. Sure, Sánchez needs more than a month to find his groove with his new team. However, the Chilean’s assertion that he came to Manchester to “win everything” has so far been a fallacy, as with each match his form grows more inconsistent. Romelu Lukaku’s fiery performance against Huddersfield last week was soon repressed, as his major opportunity to earn United that crucial away goal was ruled out due to a handball. This time last year, Mourinho’s offense was effortlessly silencing pessimists. Fast-forward 365 days, I’m beginning to think those cynics may have a point.
A trip to Kiev is still within reach
Despite Wednesday’s boring performance, Manchester United still pose a credible threat to opponents and could still find themselves on a flight to Kiev, Ukraine in May. With a fit Eric Bailly, happy Paul Pogba and consistent Alexis Sánchez, the Red Devils are still within reach to pull off an upset against most round of 16 teams. United’s weakening defense has put the pressure on Bailly to quickly return and remind us that not all hope is lost. While Zlatan Ibrahimović may not return to the starting XI or even the bench any time soon, he’s still a secret weapon that when unleashed, has the potential to work in Mourinho’s favor. Of course, employing a strong lineup that showcases each player’s strengths falls at the helm of the manager. Nevertheless, this dynamic organization didn’t become England’s most decorated club by being complacent.