Manchester United 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0
Man United: Mkhitaryan (29')
Man of the Match: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)
It was a game of a strike and a splint, a right foot and a left ankle. It revolved around Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a man who has defined Manchester United’s season in different ways. Cause celebre has emerged from hibernation in auspicious style but while delivering United’s first most significant win under Jose Mourinho, he departed on a stretcher, leg encased.
The fear was that he may revert to being mentioned but missed, oft discussed and rarely seen, United’s version of Godot. Jose Mourinho was quick to allay that, suggesting Mkhitaryan will be back soon.
“The injury doesn’t look like a big one,” the Portuguese said. “It doesn’t look like one needing surgery or months of recovery. Hopefully we will have him on Boxing Day.”
A collective sigh of relief may be breathed. Yet it was revealing that fringe figure suddenly feels pivotal. The Armenian is looking the footballer voted the best in the Bundesliga last season, not the man who had appeared United’s seventh-choice winger recently.
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He accomplished something none of his teammates had managed in Mourinho’s reign: he procured three points against immediate rivals. Tottenham Hotspur were their first top-six victims. If, 13 points behind Chelsea, United’s interest in the title race is purely token, they at least clawed back ground on rivals for a Uefa Champions League place.
“We were six points from Tottenham,” Mourinho said. “If we lose, it is nine.” Instead, it is a mere three.
Mourinho’s comments betrayed his sense that little had been wrong apart from results.
“After so many matches playing well but not winning, we needed the points more than the performance,” he said. Yet as he was quick to point out, United got both.
They were defensively resilient, epitomised by Phil Jones. Like Mkhitaryan, the centre-back has come in from the cold, taking his opportunity. “Magnificent,” Mourinho said.
The midfield has been cohesive since Michael Carrick returned to the team. He provided a platform to play for Ander Herrera, instigator of Mkhitaryan’s goal, and a marauding Paul Pogba, who struck the bar with a free kick as a motionless Hugo Lloris watched. The Tottenham captain showed more athleticism and agility to twice deny his France colleague.
“Mkhitaryan is the man of the match but if you have a trophy for a second, give it to Lloris,” Mourinho said.
The Armenian’s excellence was apparent before and after his belated first league goal, drilled past Lloris after Herrera pierced the offside trap.
Assistance came from an opponent. Harry Kane has never scored against United. Instead, he contributed to their goal by being dispossessed. Mauricio Pochettino exonerated his top scorer.
“Our offensive players can make a mistake,” he said. “They need to take a risk. We have a lack of reaction in that situation.”
But with one notable exception, those offensive players underachieved. “I think we create similar chances to Manchester United,” the Tottenham manager said, but it was a flattering interpretation.
Only Christian Eriksen, who was strangely substituted, truly troubled United. David De Gea made a hat-trick of saves from the Dane. Pochettino rued a chance when Eriksen found the unmarked Victor Wanyama, who contrived to head the ball away from goal.
A different defensive midfielder occupied United minds. Seven days earlier, Marouane Fellaini had come off the bench at Goodison Park, charged with protecting a lead and promptly conceded a penalty. He was booed on after his stoppage-time introduction. Mourinho empathised with the crowd and supported his player alike.
“They have in their mind the mistake that Marouane did at Everton and no more,” he said. “He is a player and a person I like and the person is more important. He will always have my protection and he will always have my trust.”
Thankfully for Mourinho and Fellaini, his latest cameo was an innocuous affair as United, who have seen points slip from their grasp in the closing stages of many a game, held on. Fellaini was a subplot. The spotlight lingered on Mkhitaryan.
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