Fer­nan­des shows shades of Can­tona

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Paul Hayward

To call Bruno Fer­nan­des a trans­for­ma­tive sign­ing on the Eric Can­tona level might be pre­ma­ture, but he was just what Manch­ester United needed: the right kind of player at the right time, with in­fec­tious abil­ity and self-be­lief.

There were glimpses here of a new, dy­namic, ex­cit­ing United side in the mak­ing and Fer­nan­des is cen­tral to the re­vival. Two goals for the club’s £67mil­lion Jan­uary sign­ing of­fered yet more ev­i­dence that “Bruno” is one of those cat­a­lyst ac­qui­si­tions who help a strug­gling team find pur­pose and rhythm, two qual­i­ties United have too of­ten lacked. Fer­nan­des is also a “plat­form” player who helps oth­ers flour­ish.

Of all the United young­sters who will ben­e­fit from Fer­nan­des’s in­flu­ence, Ma­son Green­wood is mak­ing ar­guably the fastest progress. Green­wood needs no warn­ings from his man­ager about new strik­ers maybe com­ing in. This su­perbly promis­ing 18-year-old would take some shift­ing by any re­cruit. His first-half goal here fea­tured quick feet, close con­trol and rapier in­tent, and his pass for Fer­nan­des’s sec­ond was per­fect. His cease­less roam­ing and speed of thought have added an edge to a United side who used to ad­vance clunkily and with no clear pat­tern of play.

United had won only four of their 15 league away fix­tures this sea­son and had not taken all three points in the top tier at Brighton since 1982, but they were dom­i­neer­ing from the start. With Harry Maguire free to play from the back un­der no pres­sure, Paul Pogba rapidly find­ing his range and United’s three young counter-at­tack­ers tor­ment­ing Brighton’s de­fence, United were 2-0 up within half an hour – a mis­kicked goal by Fer­nan­des com­ple­ment­ing Green­wood’s dash away from Dale Stephens in the 16th minute and sharp, cold fin­ish.

United’s 49 points from 31 games was their low­est since 1990-91, so the heat was on them to fin­ish this sum­mer fes­ti­val with a flour­ish. They sensed vul­ner­a­bil­ity in an ex­per­i­men­tal Brighton side and used the first half for pass­ing prac­tice.

Brighton re­turned with en­ergy and re­newed com­mit­ment to beat Arse­nal at home and take a point off Le­ices­ter at the King Power. They sought a win that would have taken them nine points clear of the rel­e­ga­tion zone, but found United a much tougher propo­si­tion. Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer’s men, un­beaten in 15 games in all com­pe­ti­tions, have now kept eight clean sheets in 13 league games and are two points off a guar­an­teed Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion place.

Sol­sk­jaer dis­carded most of the FA Cup team who made it through to the semi-fi­nals at the week­end and re­stored the big names, led by the po­ten­tial dream mid­field com­bi­na­tion of Fer­nan­des and Pogba – as well as the three young at­tack­ers to whom the man­ager de­liv­ered such an unexpected warn­ing on the eve of this match.

With only 48 goals in 31 Premier League fix­tures, Sol­sk­jaer said the team might need an­other fin­isher next sea­son. It sounded mis­chievous. Four­teen league goals each for Mar­cus Rash­ford and An­thony Mar­tial was re­spectable with seven games left, but Sol­sk­jaer is ev­i­dently keen to main­tain cre­ative ten­sion in his squad.

The big­gest test of Mac Al­lis­ter’s club ca­reer was to cope with the craft and ex­pe­ri­ence of Fer­nan­des and Pogba and he found it hard go­ing. Tariq Lamptey, who made such a strik­ing Brighton de­but at Le­ices­ter, re­tained his place, but this time at right mid­field. Even with two right-backs Brighton strug­gled to deal with United’s re­lent­less in­cur­sions and the ease with which they moved the ball.

Brighton needed to change, and at half-time Pot­ter brought on Mau­pay and Le­an­dro Trossard. United were unim­pressed, strik­ing again for Fer­nan­des’s sec­ond, af­ter Ne­manja Matic had hooked a long ball to Green­wood, who raced up Brighton’s right flank and crossed to the team’s new un­of­fi­cial leader, who cracked it past Mat Ryan, who was partly blamed for United’s sec­ond. started on the bench. Gra­ham Pot­ter, who said he wanted to utilise Con­nolly’s “pace,” also gave a sec­ond league start in mid­field to Alexis Mac Al­lis­ter, a 21-year-old who has played twice for Ar­gentina.

Brighton, mean­while, were with­out Adam Web­ster, who in­jured a ham­string at Le­ices­ter and took a chance up front on Aaron Con­nolly, 20, who had not scored since Oct 5, while the lead­ing scorer, Neal Mau­pay,

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