Never before has an exception proved the rule so definitively, nor in such an infuriating fashion. On Sunday evening, Manchester United were celebrating not only a result but a performance so transformative it was expected to change both the course of a difficult season and the club’s future.
Premier League leaders Chelsea visited Old Trafford and were made to look foolish. The division’s best player was completely nullified for 90 minutes, the home defence was robust, physical and fair, the midfield faultless, and the attack was fast, ferocious and vibrant. Jose Mourinho had penned the perfect script, and his players stuck to it diligently. It was a team performance in every sense.
By Thursday evening, normality had resumed. A lesser opponent stepped through the tunnel at an expectant Old Trafford, and United toiled. The side that had hunted in packs four days prior displayed none of the hunger or bite that felled the champions-elect. This was a disjointed showing, the kind Old Trafford has become accustomed to.
Stoke, Burnley, West Ham, Hull, Bournemouth and West Brom have all entered the lion’s den as nothing more than prey and emerged unscathed this season, despite betting sites like M88 predicting otherwise. Include Anderlecht in that illustrious group – for it required extra-time to finally edge past them – and United have registered a combined 151 shots in those seven games for a return of five goals.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was restored to the starting line-up after his surprise omission at the weekend, but the Swede offered precisely what United did not need against a deeper defence. Fans were provided a glimpse into the future on Sunday, something a 35-year-old striker cannot be a long-term part of. The pace and purpose seen against Chelsea was replaced with slow approach play, awkward touches and plodding attacks. Anderlecht defended superbly, but United allowed them to.
With Ibrahimovic misfiring, Paul Pogba cutting a frustrated figure and Henrikh Mkhitaryan offering little aside from the opening goal, United needed an individual to step up. Not for the first time, Marcus Rashford relished the opportunity to impress, and played at a number of levels beyond any other player on the pitch. No player attempted more than his six shots, nor did anyone complete more than his seven dribbles. Without him, United would have stumbled out of the Europa League.
That they had to rely upon a 19-year-old’s drive and leadership qualities hardly reflects well on the squad, nor the manager. Mourinho deserved every plaudit that came his way after engineering success over Chelsea, and he will likely be praised for guiding the club into the semi-finals of a competition that offers a viable route into the Champions League.
The Portuguese deserves little more than a quick pat on the back for the result alone, for this was a game that proved neither he nor his players have learned their lessons this season. As far back as October they were frustrated and foiled by both Stoke and Burnley in the Premier League. Six months later, and they approach games against similar opponents with the same style, the same system and the same players, but expect different results each time. The only change was that Anderlecht were as threatening an attacking force as United have faced in some time.
The display against Chelsea was wonderful, but it has already been undone. It was the one cheat day in a diet of underperformance and frustration – the brief spell of sun on an otherwise chilly morning. Returning to the sort of display which has become a staple of their oh so historic unbeaten Premier League run is by no means a disaster – they are still fifth, four points behind Manchester City with a game in hand – but it is a disappointment.
That, of course, will be offset by Rashford, and Mourinho owes the teenager a debt of gratitude for sparing his blushes with his brilliance. The scoreline after 90 minutes should not be forgotten however, for it is quickly becoming the manager’s pièce de résistance. United are progressing, but ever so slowly under the Special 1-1.