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

The Star (Kenya) - - Sports International - MARTIN SA­MUEL From the Heart of the Mat­ter

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.

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