Alexis Sanchez's first Manchester United goal arrives in a comfortable win against Huddersfield
Manchester United rose to Jose Mourinho's challenge and recovered from their midweek blues with a routine victory over Huddersfield Town.
On an otherwise sombre day when Old Trafford paid its respects to the victims of the Munich Air Disaster, a goal apiece from Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, his first for United, proved enough to secure victory and cut Manchester City's lead at the top of the Premier League table to 13 points.
Mourinho may have conceded the title but he would not have accepted another performance like the one in Wednesday's defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley and a cut-throat team selection suggested as much.
Although always on top, it looked as though United were on course for frustrating afternoon after an ill-tempered first half ended goalless. Huddersfield, though, are a spirited team with clear limitations and as soon as Lukaku confidently finished Juan Mata's cross to open the scoring, the result was not in doubt.
The day was dominated by thoughts of one 60 years previous, when eight Manchester United players and three members of staff lost their lives on Flight 609 at Munich-Reim Airport. The names of all 23 fatalities, including the crew and reporters who also perished, were displayed around Old Trafford during a minute's silence that was, as they always are at this time of year, immaculately observed.
The match itself was at the back of most people's minds before kick-off but the teamsheet provided plenty of intrigue. There was the matter of Sanchez's Old Trafford debut, of course, but that was a footnote to four surprising changes, with Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial ruthlessly dropped in the wake of the Tottenham defeat.
After a heated touchline exchange with his manager that night, Pogba’s demotion was the most eye-catching. Mourinho said it was purely a result of academy product Scott McTominay deserving a chance but fooled nobody.
There was also the matter of Manchester City’s 1-1 draw at Burnley in the lunchtime kick-off, which handed United the chance to cut the gap at the top of the table. The hosts were expected to do just that against a Huddersfield side winless in seven league matches, with the top flight's third-worst travelling defence.
Yet David Wagner's visitors showed more tenacity in the first half than they had mustered in the entirety of their 3-0 defeat to Liverpool just four days earlier. Though still lacking any serious threat in the final third, Huddersfield were more than game for the midfield battle and the opening 45 minutes was defined by fierce tackles and a general tetchiness.
These Lancashire and Yorkshire rivals came closest to a Battle of Bosworth re-enactment when the full weight of Terence Kongolo clattered into McTominay. The youngster was struck square on the side of his head and lay dazed in the penalty area for some time, but it was not worthy of a spot-kick according to referee Stuart Atwell and nothing like a foul if you asked the braying away end. Neither seemed to have the correct interpretation.
United's new signing is not one to shy away from such skirmishes and Sanchez tested Jonas Lossl more than any of his new team-mates with one shot from the edge of the box as the half-hour mark approached. Huddersfield's goalkeeper, down low to his right, needed both hands to push it away but he would not be called on again for the remainder of the half.
It was during the interval that a section of United's support unfurled a banner honouring Sanchez and those two treasured names in the storied history of this famous club, Atom and Humber. The presence of this tribute was embarrassing enough. That it obscured part of the only Old Trafford banner to depict Sir Matt Busby, on this particular day, was only sadder still.
It was eventually removed, but not before Lukaku had broken Huddersfield's resolve and established United's lead. Juan Mata's cross from the left was impeccably-placed and invited the Belgian into a side-foot finish on the volley that bounced before slipping under Lossl's helpless right hand.
The Huddersfield 'keeper was more successful when squaring up to Sanchez from the penalty spot some twelve minutes later, after substitute Michael Hefele had clumsily tripped the Chilean a few yards inside the area. Lossl stopped the resulting tame and low attempt but by clawing at the ball, he only diverted back towards Sanchez, who stroked in on the rebound for his first United goal.
With that first-half midfield battle now decisively won and Huddersfield still lacking anything in the way of attacking threat, United saw out the remainder with little difficulty.
Independent News Service