Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 28 January 2020

Marcus Rashford changes desperation into exhilaration at Manchester United

Relief for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he hands returning Jose Mourinho a defeat

The board showing four minutes added on time shone through the drizzle. Manchester United were leading Tottenham 2-1 and the tension was almost unbearable: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team had lost the lead six times in league games this season.

Assistant manager Mike Phelan rose from the dugout and waved his arms to urge more support from fans. Old Trafford roared. ‘Red Army! Red Army! Red Army!’

Five metres to his left, Jose Mourinho, sartorially superior, hoped that his Tottenham side would push for an equaliser. Three times in the previous week United had led, not once had they won.

With only four wins from their opening 14 league games – an abject statistic – United were desperate. Yet desperation brought exhilaration. It was never this exciting when United were beating Spurs season after season under Sir Alex Ferguson. Three points were a given then, but not now.

United held on to an almighty bellowing and songs of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ and ‘You are my Solskjaer’. The Norwegian was as relieved as the crowd, clenching his fist. With pressure building and even his backers in the fan base beginning to doubt, he really needed those three points.

The magnanimous Mourinho shook the hands of players he had once managed, though only two of the 10 signed on his watch started the game.

One, Brazilian midfielder Fred, had his best outing in a red shirt, with a neat and energetic performance as United’s midfield dominated for once.

United deserved their win after their best showing in a stuttering season, a victory which pushed them back up to sixth ahead of Saturday’s Manchester derby. Marcus Rashford was confident, scored twice and was the star player. Mourinho’s men couldn’t handle him.

Playing on the left in the absence of the injured and inconsistent Anthony Martial, Rashford ran at the opposition, he came deep to win the ball, he took free-kicks and scored a penalty.

United’s front three of Rashford, 17-year-old Mason Greenwood and Dan James just had too much pace for Spurs. Behind them, Jesse Lingard showed some of the form that has been missing all year, his combinations with Rashford incisive and damaging.

The first half was especially impressive. Mourinho opined that “for 30 minutes United were not just better, they were much better in intensity, aggression. We lost because they had more emotion than us.”

The 73,000 crowd tapped into that emotion and responded. Harry Maguire pushed up and Scott McTominay made a difference on his return from injury by doing the simple things well.

Rashford’s sixth minute goal where he struck the ball downwards towards the near post vindicated a bright start.

Everything went through Rashford. Solskjaer said: “It’s the best game Marcus has had under me.” Spurs’ full-backs struggled to contain him but also the pace of James and the tempo of the United team who immediately closed spaces down whenever Spurs had possession.

Rashford is in a sweet spot for goals, but he’s also scoring against the best. United’s problems come against the so-called weaker teams since they’ve defeated Chelsea twice, Leicester, Spurs and are the only team to take points off Liverpool. United’s away form remains wretched but Rashford has scored in six of the 10 games at home eight times. He’s getting closer with his free-kicks too. One of his shots ended up hitting the crossbar.

And then Spurs equalised, a sublime individual goal from a rejuvenated Delle Alli after 38 minutes after he flicked the ball over Fred. That would have usually signalled a deflation in the fragile confidence of this United side, but they had the resolve to start the second half well and receive a well-timed penalty after a foul on Rashford.

The Mancunian stepped up and sidefooted to the left of Paulo Gazzaniga. For once, United didn’t go defensive. Rashford was all step overs and beating players.

There has been far too little of this in recent years. The team that takes to a field to a song where a line goes ‘immerse me in your splendour’ have been anything but splendid. But they were against a Spurs side which Alli considered ‘arrogant and a bit sloppy’. And they needed to be.

“There is no better game than the next one,” said Solskjaer ahead of Saturday’s Manchester derby. “City have 24 hours extra to recover so I’m happy I have a young team – we’ll be ready for Saturday. When we turn the corner and win three or four games on the run, they will get that Man United feeling again.”

United have yet to win consecutive league games this season. Saturday would be a great day to change that.

Updated: December 5, 2019 02:46 PM

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