United in command despite late leveller
Anderlecht 1 Manchester Utd 1
Jose Mourinho will lament the fact that his Manchester United team refuse to do things the easy way, and although they have one foot in the semi-finals of the Europa League they very nearly came back from Brussels with a victory rather than just a draw.
There were only three minutes left when the Anderlecht midfielder Leander Dendoncker got his head to a cross from Ivan Obradovic and all that hard work had the edge taken off it.
Still, Chelsea will visit Old Trafford on Sunday with some security for United that if they drop even further off the pace in the Premier League top-four race then they still have the fall-back option of a place in the Champions League via its less glamorous sibling ahead of the second leg next Thursday.
Mourinho picked a strong side and was rewarded with a decent performance and Henrikh Mkhitaryan's opportunist first-half goal tucked away after a shot from Marcus Rashford, United's most potent attacking threat.
United are the biggest fish left in this competition and they will feel now that they can go all the way to the final in Stockholm on May 24.
This was not the red-hot performance one might expect from one of Europe's leading teams. but then United are a long way from being considered one of them. Rather it was a tidy and focused performance against an Anderlecht team who were playing their biggest match of the season and got an equaliser without having really tested Sergio Romero before then.
It took United a while to gain control of the flow of the game, but eventually the general grinding away at the home team eventually yielded a goal for Mkhitaryan, his fourth away from home in the Europa League this season, and a big one for his manager.
Mourinho is organising his resources, with games coming thick an fast. No doubt his planning is all in hand, but an away goal in the first half was just the basis he needed to start the sequence of games in the right manner.
He had Michael Carrick (35) back in midfield, a full 16 years older than Youri Tielemans who was his opposite number as captain for the night.
The Belgian midfielder is yet another prospect from the plentiful supply line this country has established in recent years although for the most part he found himself chasing United in the first half.
What Anderlecht lack in heavyweight attacking talent they compensated for in two very strong central defenders, Serigne Mbodji and Bram Nuytinck, who dealt with much of what was thrown at them in the first half.
Of United's attacking players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was shrewd and careful in possession but Rashford was the most dangerous.
It was his sweet touch on 17 minutes to stun a ball on the left and whip in a right-footed shot that Ibrahimovic connected with. The goalkeeper Ruben stopped that effort and Jesse Lingard, playing in a deeper role, could only put his shot against the post. Rashford plucked another through-ball out the air with his toe nine minutes later and Mbodji was there to sweep it away again.
United can be ponderous on the ball, no matter how much they have of it.
Carrick is a marvellous passer to watch but no-one could ever accuse United in this game of consistently going from back to front in the blink of an eye. They needed to draw Anderlecht out and eventually that was the case with the goal, when Ibrahimovic saw the chance to play in Antonio Valencia down the right and his cross was played back into the stride of Rashford just inside the box.
The 19-year-old hit a good first time shot that Ruben saved to his right but could not push far enough away from Mkhitaryan, who had elected to make a smart run in on goal and guided the ball in from a tight angle.
The Armenian had only flickered before then, a booking for a bad tackle on Tielemans, and an outrageous nutmeg in midfield, but he proved once again that his goal threat is impressive.
He should have had another 10 minutes after half-time following some painstaking United build-up found Matteo Darmian in space to cross on the left and his ball in was guided wide by Mkhitaryan, who might have had more time than he supposed. United had been under pressure until then.
Anderlecht started the second half well with their Ghana international Frank Acheampong a threat down the left and a bit of pace to their counter-attacking. United had to rely on Valencia to get in the way of a couple of shots.
The home team needed an early second half goal to rescue the momentum but they were unable to break United down.
There was an excellent challenge by Darmian on Nicolae Stanciu with 20 minutes of the game remaining, and generally United's defenders picked their moments well to intervene.
Marouane Fellaini came on to the kind of reception that they reserve in this stadium for old boys of Standard Liege.
He slotted in to his usual duties of tackling and frustrating and even managed a shot on goal.
Paul Pogba had a chance before the goal and then Valencia allowed Obradovic to get away from him and cross for Dendoncker, a reminder for United that they can take nothing for granted in this competition. (© Daily Telegraph, London)