ENGLISH clubs are on the verge of re-claiming their mantle as the powerhouses of European football.
That fact is undeniable – with all five clubs in a position where they could progress to the final eight of the Champions League.
So why, then, was Manchester United’s result so underwhelming?
Sure, they escape from Sevilla with a 0-0 draw which means they have a slight upper hand when the two sides face off again at Old Trafford. But this was a performance that epitomises the different approach Jose Mourinho takes to his main Premier League rivals.
Where Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City went to Basel in the first leg and put on a clinic, winning 4-0, Mourinho’s men lost on the road to the Swiss side in the group stage.
Had Manchester United drawn Porto, and not Sevilla, then you can guarantee they wouldn’t have walked away with a 5-0 whitewash as Liverpool had done one week earlier.
How can it be that the great Manchester United – the richest club in world football – can travel to Sevilla and not push for a win or an away goal?
After all, this was a Sevilla side with their star striker, Wissam Ben Yedder, on the bench and one that had copped 12 goals in the group stage – including going behind 3-0 to Liverpool in a 3-3 draw. They were a team for a taking.
They were also a team facing the biggest financial disparity in the UCL Round of 16, summing up the different ammunition on offer to United.
This was a Manchester United side with expensive firepower like Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata in the starting XI. When things weren’t going to plan, with Ander Herrera forced off inside 20 minutes, one-time most expensive player on the planet Paul Pogba was summoned. Then followed Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
Still, United ended with just six shots in total, with just one on target.
Frighteningly, in United’s past five matches (Sevilla, Huddersfield x2, Newcastle and Tottenham), they have managed just 11 shots on target.
On the flip side, goalkeeper David De Gea was a one-man band to prevent Sevilla taking an all-important lead into the return leg. He made eight saves in total and his stop to deny Luis Muriel before half time was out of this world.
Once again De Gea now stands alone as the goalkeeper with the highest save percentage in the last five years of the Champions League. It’s a worrying trend.
MOURINHO BENCHES POGBA, AGAIN
Mourinho is sick of the “lies” and the attention surrounding Paul Pogba.
Before the game he gave his star name his full backing and opened up his pre-match session to the media to show how well he’s training.
Then he dropped him.
Opting to start a midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Ander Herrera, Mourinho even opted for a 4-3-3 he has been reluctant to use. This is the system that best suits Pogba, but he did it without Pogba from the start.
That was until Herrera’s 18th minute injury, where Pogba was then introduced. But he did little to impact United’s attack.
“Paul made a big effort to try to give me what I asked,” Mourinho said post-game.
“Paul replaced Ander [Herrera] and tried to give the game the same qualities. He lost a couple of possessions, but he gave us also stability. We had a good percentage of the ball and that means control of the game, and Paul had the responsibility for that.”
More of a blow for United is the loss of Herrera, with Mourinho calling out his medical team after the match for what could prove to be a “bad injury”.
“I think it’s a bad injury,” Mourinho said. “He had a small injury that stopped him for the last couple of matches, but the medical department gave him 100 per cent ready for the last Saturday [at Huddersfield in the FA Cup].
“We didn’t play him to give more work and more protection, but it looks like he was not fully fit. The medical department gave him fully fit. They gave him fully fit Saturday and he trained Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and he looked fit.
“The way he was playing during the time he was on the pitch, I think he showed that intensity that is only possible when you are fit.”
LUKAKU DEVOID OF CONFIDENCE
Lukaku had the two best chances for United all match.
His first came after being played over the top by Alexis Sanchez – with the Belgian No.9 skying his first time shot over the bar when he should have done better.
Then, in the second half, Lukaku had the ball in the back of the net, only for his shot to be ruled out for a handball in his attempt to control the lofted pass with his chest.
It was another frustrating game for Lukaku, who looked devoid of confidence
When Manchester United were soaking up late pressure, Mourinho opted to reinforce his attack by bringing on Rashford and Martial in wide areas. It was to give electric pace on the counter attack in search of a goal against the run of play.
But in summing up the negative approach to the match, Sevilla’s coach Vincenzo Montella then rolled on two late changes to kill the momentum of the game – introducing Sandro Ramirez in a sub that took all of 60 seconds after a mix up with Sevilla changing their mind about which player should come off in his place.