Back from the brink
Sanchez’s last-gasp winner seals United fightback with Mourinho’s future on the line
For a significant part of this match, it did not just feel like Manchester United’s players had given up playing for Jose Mourinho, it felt as though they had stopped playing football altogether. They were a lost cause.
Newcastle were two goals up inside ten minutes, Eric Bailly was dragged off soon after and, despite the pre-match reassurances from inside Old Trafford that Mourinho was not about to get sacked, the Portuguese appeared to be gearing up to collect his P45. It felt like the endgame, the point of no return.
And then, with 20 minutes left, Juan Mata scored, the home fans stirred, Anthony Martial found the equaliser and, as the clock struck 90, Mourinho and his men were toasting a winner from Alexis Sanchez to complete a comeback every bit as remarkable as a first half in which they were fortunate not to be blown away was ramshackle.
Think the Etihad Stadium in April when Manchester United came from two goals down at half-time to win 3-2 against Manchester City and you get an idea of how this game played out. That match would not prove the catalyst to bigger and better things that United supporters hoped it would so there may be an understandable reluctance to herald this as the moment the club turned its season around, particularly as Mourinho admitted his team were not coping well with the “man-hunting” against them.
But this was a time to simply enjoy a moment of victory. “I’m sorry, boys,” Mourinho said as he entered his postmatch press conference, a sarcastic jibe at the people he feels have it in for him. Yet anyone doubting the manager’s desire to be at the club need only watch how he dropped to his knees in the 88th minute, shortly before Sanchez scored, and willed, almost begged Martial to chase down a ball he had given up on, or how he celebrated the Chilean’s dramatic winner.
Would a better team have killed off Mourinho’s men before Mata began the fightback with a delicious free-kick and Sanchez completed it with a goal his flagging confidence badly needed? They certainly cannot expect to defend so shambolically away to Chelsea after the international break.
With more composure, Newcastle could easily have sported a 3-0 lead at the interval and Yoshinori Muto will certainly rue a missed header from close range. Forget all the talk about anti-football, for the first 20 minutes especially this was non-football from the home side. They have been poor this term but the first half was what rock bottom looks like.
Mourinho is no stranger to making early substitutions, but whether he was trying to make another statement to his board about their failure to sign a centre-half in the summer or not, few could blame him for withdrawing Bailly after just 19 minutes and putting on Mata. He certainly had the backing of the fans who chanted: “Jose’s right, the board are s----” and who sang Gary Neville’s name in a pointed reference to their former player’s fierce criticism of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s handling of the club.
What was curious, though, was Mourinho’s decision to drop midfielder Scott McTominay into central defence in Bailly’s place and, if anything, the youngster was even more chaotic than Bailly had been – “scared to play” as his boss later claimed. McTominay did not emerge for the second half but Nemanja Matic – as bad here as he was against West Ham – fared no better in defence. Mourinho has built a career on cohesive, organised back lines but this lot were a rabble.
Both of Newcastle’s goals originated from throw-ins that the home side failed abjectly to deal with. For the first, Matic, out of position, allowed a throw to bypass him and gifted Ayoze Perez the freedom to surge forward into a huge open space and feed Kenedy who cut inside Ashley Young with ease and stroked the ball past David De Gea.
It soon got worse. Rather than mark Jonjo Shelvey from a throw-in himself, Martial was asking someone else to do his job for him and, with time and space, the Newcastle midfielder crossed, Bailly failed to clear and the ball dropped to Muto, who spun Young before blasting a shot in the middle of De Gea’s net for his first Newcastle goal.
The visitors were better in every department, this a team who went into the game second bottom with just four goals from seven games, and only two saves from De Gea to deny Muto and Shelvey kept United in it.
Mourinho needed something, anything, but when opportunity knocked, Marcus Rashford fluffed his lines, heading Romelu Lukaku’s superb cross wide. The Portuguese commented afterwards that the England striker is “sad”. His performance reflected it.
It was not the worst miss of the day, though. That belonged to Matic five minutes after the restart when he blazed over with a gaping goal to aim at after Paul Pogba’s shot was saved.
Suddenly United were discovering some urgency and, with Pogba finally gaining a foothold from deep in midfield, Newcastle found themselves pushed back. Mata’s free-kick whipped up the crowd and then Martial rammed home a shot into the bottom corner of the net after stabbing the ball to Pogba, whose back-heel return was exquisite.
There was a grandstand finish to come. Young beat his man on the right and crossed. Over flew the ball and there, timing his run perfectly, was Sanchez to power home a header. How big a goal that proves to be for him, and his team, we will have to wait and see but you can seldom say life is dull at Manchester United.
Star cameo: Alexis Sanchez, a second-half substitute, celebrates with Marouane Fellaini after scoring the winning goal for Manchester United in the last minute yesterday. United recovered from going 2-0 down