RED DEVILS PLAY IT STRAIGHT AND CITY FINISH SECOND BEST
Juan Mata slots home to settle the EFL Cup fourth round tie as Jose Mourinho gets revenge on Catalan old rival Pep Guardiola
Say what you like about the suite life of Jose Mourinho, a lonely existence in a hotel room does give a man time to think.
The Manchester United manager would have had many hours to contemplate how to beat his great city rivals and, ultimately, he came up with a cracking plan “A”.
“I know,” thought Mourinho. “I’ll send out my first team and let Pep Guardiola pick his reserves.”
Credit him for his boldness. It would have been very easy to put out a weakened side and use that as a shield.
He didn’t do that. He made his intentions plain, allowed City to be the underdogs.
This was a brave move by a manager who knew he couldn’t toss away the second derby of the season lightly, no matter its trappings, and certainly not after losing 4-0 at Chelsea.
Having been outplayed by City here in the Premier League earlier in the season – in the first half at least – some managers might have tried to be cute.
But it is not Mourinho’s way to hide. No doubt he will be ready for the cynicism, too. Big clubs are not supposed to take the EFL Cup seriously, but that has never deterred him.
It is the first major cup of the season, in his estimation, and he is always in it to win it.
Not that Manchester City laid down. They should have been a goal up through Kelechi Iheanacho after two minutes, and by the end had introduced Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero in the hope of landing an equaliser.
That was United at their most impressive. Holding out with plenty to lose, City with everything to gain from a lucky swing of the boot.
Maybe the disparity in the team selections might explain how City faded from the game. In a strange way, the team sheet alone will have felt like victory of sorts.
The best United could muster against Guardiola’s collection of youngsters and reserves. It showed a coach more comfortable with the progress of his season, although whether it felt that way after a sixth game without victory is another story. Guardiola has never gone that long without a win in his career, and defeat can be as habit forming as victory. Ask David Moyes. Yet what could he do? It is a plain fact that United do not have the same level of midweek commitments this season. The Europa League is a significant prize, yes – particularly with a place in the Champions League awaiting the winner – but it will be a while before it has the potential to throw up a fixture to match Manchester City’s return game at home to Barcelona next week. Put simply, Guardiola could not afford to waste his best players on the competition that is clearly fourth on City’s list of objectives.
Guardiola said as much before the game but that doesn’t mean his players started at half pace. The match was only two minutes old when City forced their best chance. The kindest way to put it was that it came too soon for striker Iheanacho, before he really had time to warm to the occasion. A harsher take would be that squandered the opportunity to put Manchester United on the back foot, as surely as Chelsea did last Sunday.
Jesus Navas got the cross in – and that is not a sentence you read every day – but Iheanacho somehow headed over from a yard or so out.
Some are speculating that he could soon be Guardiola’s starting choice with Aguero no longer the first name on the team sheet, but he will need to be sharper than this if he is. Chances against Barcelona will be no easier to come by next Tuesday, and City’s target man has to be ever ready.
United got lucky eight minutes later when a clumsy challenge from Michael Carrick, the wrong side of Aleix Garcia, looked to be a penalty but was denied by referee Mike Dean.
The official did little to further endear himself to the travelling fans soon after when Ihenacho clearly slipped on a tricky surface and took out Daley Blind. It was an accident, but Dean produced a yellow card.
That the same punishment was delivered when Antonio Valencia hit Fernando at waist height was quite ridiculous. City had the best of the early exchanges but United steadily grew into the game and after the half hour had their best period of possession.
In the 36th minute Luke Shaw, unconvincing against Navas which must be a worry for Mourinho after his disappointing performance at Watford last month, found Paul Pogba who moved the ball onto Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his shot deflecting over the bar.
Nothing came of the corner but from the next attack Ibrahimovic picked out Marcus Rashford, who dwelled on the ball too long and was smothered by a band of City defenders.
There have been complaints of late that Pogba has been deployed too deep by Mourinho, but that certainly wasn’t the problem on Wednesday night. Not for the first time he was far advanced, in the number ten role, behind Ibrahimovic, but for long spells could not get in the game.
His best chance came three minutes into the second-half when quite sublime skill from Ibrahimovic allowed him to put Pogba in on the right, his shot tipped onto the near post by City goalkeeper Willy Caballero. Mata then tested him with a fierce cross that he kept out much as one would a shot.
The pressure was building, however, and in the 54th minute, United got the breakthrough they deserved. Ibrahimovic collected the ball on the left, shrugging off Nicolas Otamendi much as a buffalo flicks away a fly with its tail, and cut the ball back.
Ander Herrera and Fernando tussled – some felt unfairly – but when both ended up on the turf, the ball ran loose to Mata, who buried it at the near post.
And City? Well, they enjoyed decent spells with the ball but little that truly threatened after that initial flurry.
The best of it came in the 40th minute when Iheanacho was put clear, before a mighty tackle by Marcus Rojo stopped him inside the penalty area.
It was only the reserves, the fans will tell themselves. But it was also the sixth game without a win. That must change, and soon.