Dynamic duo return to shift the balance of talent back in United's favour
Manchester United 4-1 Newcastle United
Once again, Paul Pogba is doing his snakehips shuffle beneath the Stretford End and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - straight-backed, chest puffed out, knee fixed - can be seen soaking up the crowd's acclaim. It still might not be enough when it comes to catching, and overhauling, Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, but it must still feel reassuring for José Mourinho to see these two wearing Manchester United's colours again.
For Ibrahimovic, it was his first appearance since his cruciate ligaments were ruptured in April and, at the grand old age of 36, it is no exaggeration to say that many people might have presumed this comeback would never happen. It was a tremendous cheer he received when he came on after 76 minutes and, Zlatan being Zlatan, one imagines he still feels he can have a considerable influence on this season's title race. He will be annoyed, undoubtedly, that Rob Elliot's save denied him a late goal from an acrobatic volley.
Instead, all the goals arrived before Ibrahimovic's entrance on an evening when Pogba, scorer of the home team's third goal, also made a triumphant return. The Frenchman was excellent and Romelu Lukaku should also feel a lot better after ending his recent drought. It was the seventh time this season Mourinho's men have scored four times, with Anthony Martial and Chris Smalling also on target, and it spoke volumes for the team's character bearing in mind Newcastle had opened the scoring, via Dwight Gayle, and played superbly in the opening half an hour.
Gayle's strike was the first goal United had conceded at home this season, a run lasting seven hours and 43 minutes, and a reminder that perhaps the most significant team news for United was the absence of Phil Jones, their best defender this season. His replacement, Victor Lindelof, has had a difficult introduction, to say the least, to the Premier League and Gayle's goal was another ordeal for the £30m signing.
DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle's attacking right-back, created the chance with a brilliant surging run and Lindelof's slip left Gayle with the chance to pick his spot. The striker's finish was impeccable, aimed to David De Gea's right and going in off the upright.
Newcastle have a fairly dismal record at Old Trafford, with only one win from their previous 32 visits, and had key absentees of their own. Yet there was not a flicker of apprehension about the way Rafael Benítez's men set off. Not many teams are brave enough to come here with two strikers but perhaps Newcastle's manager sensed the home defence, also missing Eric Bailly, might be more vulnerable than usual. If so, he was absolutely correct and, unfortunately for Lindelof, it has to be said the Swede's presence was a direct factor.
At 1-0, the evening could quickly have turned worse for the home team when Jonjo Shelvey, with the game's outstanding pass, teed up Jacob Murphy for a shot that flashed narrowly wide. It was not an easy chance but that miss was crucial bearing in mind the way the entire complexion of the game changed before half-time.
It certainly took a while for Mourinho's team to shake their heads clear but there was always the danger for Newcastle, especially with their captain Jamel Lascelles missing, that the home team would take advantage of the their height advantage. Martial was the first, out-jumping Yedlin to head in Pogba's cross for the equaliser and when the next goal arrived in first-half stoppage time it also came from a back-post header, albeit with the ball coming in from the opposite side this time. Smalling had drifted free and was inside the six-yard area when Ashley Young picked him out to apply the decisive touch.
Even then, there was still time for Isaac Hayden to run clear, kept out by De Gea's save, before half-time. Newcastle could have been forgiven at the interval if they felt the 2-1 scoreline was a harsh reflection on the opening 45 minutes. Ultimately, though, this was a demonstration of the mental resilience Mourinho has instilled in his players. It didn't always click and Newcastle, to their credit, kept on attacking but in the second half there was a clear imbalance of talent between the two sides.
Lukaku certainly did not look short of confidence for someone who had failed to score in the previous seven games and was prominently involved when it became 3-1 nine minutes after the interval. His cross from the right was expertly delivered and it was a lovely cushioned header from Marcus Rashford to direct the ball back across the six-yard area, leaving Pogba with the simple task of knocking it into the exposed goal.
After that, Old Trafford could relax and Lukaku lashed in his goal in the manner of someone who had grown weary of being reminded he had not scored for his club since September 30.
Sunday Indo Sport