Tuesday 20 March 2018

Mkhitaryan cuts down Spurs to give United lift-off

Man Utd 1 Tottenham 0

Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Jason Burt

Manchester United will hope that this is where it begins. This is where a season fractured by frustration and friction finally gets some traction; that they can use it as a bridgehead to claw back the points on the five teams ahead of them in the Premier League.

They claimed all three here to reduce the arrears on fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur to just three points, fourth-placed Manchester City to six and third-placed Liverpool to seven.

But, even though it is still only December, they have so little margin for error and they are facing must-win matches every week. There is a lot of traffic ahead of them. But this was, quite possibly, their biggest and hardest-fought win under Jose Mourinho - even if it came by a single goal.

That Henrikh Mkhitaryan proved to be the match-winner summed up the curiosity of it all. Until lately a strangely marginalised figure at United, after his £26m summer move from Borussia Dortmund, it depends on which theory you believe: either Mourinho has handled him well and brought him through when he was ready; or the United manager erred in overlooking him until recently despite him being the Bundesliga Player of the Year and a prodigious talent.

United are playing catch-up and so is Mkhitaryan, which makes it all the more maddening for both that he was carried off on a stretcher late on, after being caught by Danny Rose, and appearing to damage his ankle.

Mourinho predicted the injury was not too bad - maybe two games out, but that will feel like a big miss right now given Mkhitaryan's influence.

Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini in action with Tottenham's Dele Alli. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini in action with Tottenham's Dele Alli. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters


"I was afraid it was serious but looks like it's not," Mourinho later said. "Maximum a couple of weeks. It doesn't look like something that is very dangerous or difficult. He brings everything I want an attacker to play."

Finally, also, belatedly in fact, Mourinho appears to be settling on the right front six, with Michael Carrick anchoring midfield (and yet to lose this season), Ander Herrera providing zip and energy, with pace and guile ahead of him - and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top and Paul Pogba (right) close by.

Mkhitaryan's new-found status was not the only curiosity: there was also the sound of the United fans booing one of their own. As Marouane Fellaini warmed up (while Wayne Rooney remained rooted to the bench) the nervous reaction was clear, although it was soon replaced by some clapping, perhaps provoked by the embarrassment, with the Belgian eventually coming on deep into injury-time although - this time - United did not let it slip as they did away to Everton last weekend when he conceded a penalty.

Tottenham Hotspur's Kyle Walker and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford battle for the ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Tottenham Hotspur's Kyle Walker and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford battle for the ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

So finally they turned the corner following a string of draws, with Spurs suffering only their second Premier League defeat of the season - a season that, for them, has stopped and started.

They may be organised, obdurate and defensively sound but they are not quite the team they were last season and when Harry Kane is out of sorts, as he was here, their threat dims significantly.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino does not have the huge squad that Mourinho possesses. He had no striker to turn to instead of Kane, or to help him, and although Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks did well when they came on there were too many players under-par: Heung Min-Son, Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele in particular.

Still, they are hard to beat and Pochettino will have been angered by the nature of the only goal with Kane loosely losing possession, playing the ball behind Christian Eriksen, on halfway and Herrera quickly sliding an incisive pass inside Jan Vertonghen with Mkhitaryan cleverly arcing his run to stay on-side.

The 27-year-old ran on to then smash a powerful rising shot that tore past Hugo Lloris.

It was an act brimming with confidence and it was also Mkhitaryan's first Premier League goal, and the first in the league for an Armenian (the 96th nationality).

The deadlock should have been broken after just 80 seconds when Pogba ran on to Ibrahimovic's low cross, after more fine work by Mkhitaryan, but his first-time shot was too deliberate and Lloris pushed it away.

Lloris was to deny his fellow France international again, in the second half, as he beat out a bouncing shot from Matteo Darmian's cut-back, but the goalkeeper was helpless as a free-kick from Pogba cannoned back off the corner of post and crossbar.

Spurs also had opportunities with their most threatening work centring around Eriksen, who is finally also working his way back to his best form. His free-kicks carried a constant edge and he forced two alert saves from David de Gea with the goalkeeper, at full stretch, turning away efforts in either half. There was also a crisp half-volley from Eriksen that was punched out by De Gea, who also tipped over from Son.

It was from another Eriksen free-kick, however, that Spurs should have drawn level as Victor Wanyama was inexplicably permitted to run free by Antonio Valencia only to head the ball across goal to try to supply Kane instead of simply attempting to find the net.

But if that was to give the impression that United were not worth their victory, then that would be wrong.

Mourinho has, with varying degrees of justification, claimed injustice and bad luck in recent weeks, but the points were rightly apportioned. United will hope their campaign now has lift-off. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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