United off to a steady start
Goals from Pogba and Shaw puts a brief smile back on Mourinho’s face
Was that, very briefly, a smile on José Mourinho’s face?
Blink, and you might have missed it, but at least Manchester United have begun the new season with a victory and after all the sullenness of pre-season, the complaints about the club’s transfer business and the overwhelming suspicion that something is not right, this was a reminder how winning matches can make everything feel so much better.
For now at least, Old Trafford feels like a happy place again. But they struggled at times to impose themselves against a robust and attacking Leicester side.
Paul Pogba carried on where he left off in the World Cup. Fred, the ¤59 million acquisition from Shakhtar Donetsk, had a competent debut and Luke Shaw’s confidence should be boosted by scoring the 82nd-minute goal that ultimately decided the match.
Jamie Vardy, one of Leicester’s substitutes, ensured a nervous finale with a stoppage-time goal but the away team always had their work cut out after Pogba’s third-minute penalty.
Pogba’s selection came as a surprise given that he returned from his post-World Cup break only four days earlier. Pogba was wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Antonio Valencia and, after one of the slowest run-ups imaginable, it was an elegantly struck penalty to send the ball beyond Kasper Schmeichel into the top corner. Costly mistake Daniel Amartey, the Leicester player was responsible for giving away the penalty, with only 75 seconds gone as referee, Andre Marriner, was left with a relatively straightforward decision.
Wes Morgan was in the way to block Alexis Sánchez’s seemingly innocuous shot but when the ball ricocheted Amartey’s way he improvised by jutting out his arm to bring it under control. It was a costly mistake and in those difficult early stages, with United pumped up and dominating the opening quarter of an hour, it looked omi- nous for the visitors.
But the pattern of the game had changed considerably before half-time though Leicester arrived here with only one opening-day victory from their previous nine attempts. As the first half wore on, however, James Maddison began to show why Leicester had paid ¤27m to sign him from Norwich City.
Demarai Gray seemed keen to explore the theory that Matteo Darmian, deputising for Valencia as United’s right-back, might be vulnerable and the visitors probed for opportunities before the interval.
The home crowd would have been entitled to expect more from their players. Marcus Rashford, in particular, looked rusty at time. Sánchez has rarely shown Old Trafford the gifts he once displayed for Arsenal and United endured some difficult moments at the back – bearing in mind their defence was made up of four players who were largely used as understudies last season.
Harry Maguire, one of the centre-backs Mourinho wanted to recruit this summer, reminding us why Gareth Southgate eulogised in the World Cup about the player’s knack of “getting his bonce on everything”.
Southgate was here, too, and no doubt will have noted Luke Shaw returning to Mourinho’s team. Yet the attention of the England manager might also have been drawn to the opposition left-back, Ben Chilwell, who had a fine game.
For United, Pogba was the outstanding player – the nutmeg on Ricardo Pereira, just after the hour, was a joy – while Andreas Pereira fitted neatly into midfield.
Overall, though, Mourinho’s team looked what they probably are: a work in progress,
David de Gea had to keep out a decent effort from Maddison and Leicester could also reflect on the chance that Kelechi Iheanacho skimmed just wide of the far post. Too often, United were let down by an errant pass, particularly in the final third of the pitch, and that continued after Mourinho decided to bring on Romelu Lukaku midway through the second half.
Lukaku was one of the players given extra time off to recover from the World Cup, but it was obvious United needed more from their front players and it needed a fine save from Schmeichel to deny him a goal.
Shaw had one awkward moment when Vardy dispossessed him close to his own penalty area but United’s left-back got away with that one and made amends shortly afterwards by hooking a diagonal shot past Schmeichel from Juan Mata’s pass. Vardy’s goal was a close-range header after Ricardo’s cross came back off the far post but Leicester could not conjure up any more late drama.
Manchester United goalscorer Paul Pogba holds off Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi at Old Trafford last night.