Tuesday 22 January 2019

Paul Pogba's absence met only by apathy at Manchester United

Manchester United's Paul Pogba
Manchester United's Paul Pogba
Romelu Lukaku gets away from Andy Robertson during a dominant display at Old Trafford. Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

James Ducker and Chris Bascombe

The prospect of Paul Pogba being unavailable for the delicately poised second leg of a Champions League last 16 tie might have been an alarming one for Manchester United supporters a few months back.

Yet it says a lot about Pogba's current predicament and the balance of United's team without him that no-one of a red persuasion will get too hot under the collar if the France midfielder fails to recover from injury in time to face Sevilla at Old Trafford tomorrow.

Pogba was ruled out of Saturday's victory over Liverpool after a collision with a team-mate in the final minute of Friday's training session and Jose Mourinho was non-committal over the player's chances of being fit for the visit of the Spanish side.

However, on the basis of what he saw from his side against Liverpool, what he has seen from Pogba of late and the need for cohesion against Sevilla, Mourinho might not necessarily accommodate the Frenchman in his starting XI even if he is fit.

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Scott McTominay's decision to pass the ball backwards early in the second half rather than attempt a more ambitious forward pass may have elicited groans from some United fans - something Mourinho later scolded them for - but the 21-year-old had a very good game and certainly helped bring far greater balance and discipline to the midfield than Pogba has in recent times when paired alongside Nemanja Matic.

Matic's praise for McTominay certainly resonated in light of Pogba's struggles.

"Scott is fantastic, it is a joy to play next to him," Matic said. "He fights for the team, he runs a lot. He plays like he's already played five or six years in the Premier League, but he's still young."

Had Alexis Sanchez made a better fist of things in the No 10 role, United might have had even more to show for their solid midfield and defensive foundations, in which the return of centre-half Eric Bailly helped to draw outstanding performances from Chris Smalling and Ashley Young.

There was a lot of perspiration from Sanchez but, once again, little inspiration. However, Sanchez's shortcomings were masked, to a large extent, by the penetrative qualities of Marcus Rashford, who claimed two decisive goals on his first Premier League start this year, and Romelu Lukaku, who bullied Dejan Lovren in a fine illustration of how to be a go-to target man.

Lovren was powerless as the Belgian easily shrugged him off after 14 minutes to flick on to Rashford, who had got the wrong side of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Englishman had been forced slightly wide but the finish was glorious.

Rashford's second, from a near identical position in the box, was slightly fortuitous as his drive flicked in off Alexander-Arnold after Juan Mata had been denied, but it was to prove enough despite Bailly's second half own-goal.

United had done enough as an attacking force to justify sitting back, with Lukaku again instrumental in their third consecutive league win. "His determination to improve is the biggest feature I've picked up from his game," Rashford said of his Belgian counterpart.

If Saturday again raised questions about this Liverpool side's ability, like Spurs, to get over the line, it is not a failing that can be levelled at Mourinho.

He knows how to win and his mind was already drifting to the next two assignments. "Sevilla and Brighton [in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Saturday] are more important games than Liverpool," he said. "I imagine that if we lose against Sevilla everyone will have forgotten what we did in the last couple of weeks."

The absence of Jordan Henderson from the Liverpool line-up, however, was purely a football decision by Klopp.

Henderson recently recovered from a hamstring injury and the fixture would have been his third game in a week. He also suffered a dead leg in the closing stages against Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday, but that did not impact on his availability.

Klopp's preference for Emre Can, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner was a footballing decision. All three had shown good form going into Saturday.

The Liverpool coach has often stressed he does not see the captain's armband as a guarantee of selection for the biggest games. Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier once declared the only way his captain should leave the pitch before the final whistle away at Manchester United is "on a stretcher". That Henderson did not make the starting line-up shows times have changed.

Although Liverpool were not discredited in defeat in a stadium where they historically struggle, central midfield is the area which will evolve as part of the next stage of their development.

Mourinho was content to allow Liverpool's middle three time, instead encircling the front three so Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino would have found playing in a telephone box more comfortable. It was only when Mane and Firmino dropped deeper in the second half that Liverpool found a higher tempo, though too often a distance from goal.

Adam Lallana, introduced late on here, will help when his injury misfortune ends, but midfield changes are already guaranteed at Anfield.

"We lost, but everybody could see we are strong," said Klopp.

"With 2-0 down that's rare that you can turn a game against Man United. We were close and actually we should have done it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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