Manchester United’s biggest outfield stars failed to show up twice against Sevilla, but they have performed well three times in games against Swansea City this season.
Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and the in-form Romelu Lukaku flopped badly against the Spaniards – the effect of which is still felt by United fans who will watch their team miss out on last eight Uefa Champions League action for the sixth time in seven years – but all three started well as United sunk the Swans in a 2-0 win at a cold and blustery Old Trafford.
Swansea were beaten 4-0 away in United’s first away game of the season, with Lukaku and Pogba scoring as well as getting an assist. United also beat Swansea 2-0 away in an October League Cup tie.
Playing five at the back, 14th-place Swansea offered little as United recorded a decent result and a 16th clean sheet in 31 league games, but the atmosphere was as flat as the nearby Manchester Ship Canal and it was not really the fault of the fans. It feels like that Sevilla defeat killed United’s season in March.
Jose Mourinho was right to say in his programme notes that United “is in a good position”. The team are comfortable in second for one and are set for a highest points total since Alex Ferguson stepped down nearly five years ago, but Manchester City are so far ahead that a “good position” is not close to being on pole. City will be champions of England for the fifth time if they beat United again next Saturday.
The FA Cup still matters at Manchester United and tickets for the semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur were oversubscribed, but it is not the Champions League which takes place next week.
The show must go on and United did what they needed to do against Swansea who barely ventured from their half in the first period.
“The first half was perfect – one of the best we’ve played here,” Mourinho said. “We pressed so high they didn’t cross the midfielder line, they didn’t have one shot.”
David de Gea was barely needed, but he was after an hour with two superb saves from Tammy Abraham.
The goals came after Romelu Lukaku put United ahead in the fifth minute with his 26th goal of the season and his 100th in the Premier League goal as he finished a move involving Matic, Jesse Lingard and an assist from Sanchez.
United were dominant, Nemanja Matic solid, Juan Mata finding and exploiting space from the right, Pogba creating – or attempting to – in the middle and Lingard, who scored two exceptional goals at Swansea in October, effective in the No 10 role.
Lingard set up Sanchez for United’s second on 20 minutes, the Chilean running onto the ball and sweeping it past Lukasz Fabianski in the away net.
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Sanchez slid on his knees in celebration towards the 3,000 Swansea fans. A minute later, he waved as J Stand sang: “Ally Sanchez on the wing.”
The Chilean, who has disappointed since his January signing from Arsenal, was full of energy and invention. After being dispossessed by Andre Ayew, he chased and won the ball back. His manager applauded – as he did when Pogba attempted long passes which did not come off.
Like his team, Pogba faded in the second half. Mourinho acknowledged as much.
“We let it go a little bit. Six or seven players had played international football midweek. I could feel the intensity go down. Our passing was slower.”
Sanchez was applauded after he was substituted for Marcus Rashford after 74 minutes. By that time, United fans in a sell-out crowd had started to slip off home. They had seen enough football in March and experienced too much heartache for one month.
They will be hoping that April puts a spring in their step.