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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 16 August 2018

Paul Pogba inspires winning start for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho

Pre-season woes are put behind United as they defeat Leicester City 2-1 at Old Trafford

Seventy seven seconds. That was all it took for the storm clouds which had enveloped Manchester United’s pre-season to be blown away after Jose Mourinho’s side were awarded an early penalty against Leicester City on Friday night in the opening Premier League game of the 2018-19 season.

Paul Pogba, named as captain, took almost as long to tiptoe up to the ball before slamming it to the left of the diving Kasper Schmeichel with his first touch since playing his part in France winning the World Cup final.

The return of Pogba was closely guarded but an effective means of lifting spirits among fans underwhelmed by the summer’s transfer activity.

It was United’s way of putting on a public united front after a spell of the club, its manager and their most expensive player sending very different messages about how they see things.

The disquiet started long before the pre-season, as United’s performances slid into an unconvincing mire towards the end of last season and Mourinho hardly improved matters with a catalogue of complaints over the summer, but little of that seemed to matter on Friday.

United’s players were introduced to optimism fuelled roars that had barely died down when the penalty was awarded after Daniel Amartey handled an Alexis Sanchez cross.

So far, so good for the men in an unconventional red, black and red kit. They were further encouraged by the Premier League debuts of Brazilian duo Fred and Andreas Pereira.

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The midfielders were tenacious and covered much ground. With Sanchez as a central striker, the selection was unorthodox through injury and necessity since players are still missing after their World Cup finals endeavours, but United had an initial energy about them too often lacking last season.

Yet as any Mancunian knows, the weather can change quickly. Leicester crept into the game and became the better side, with Eric Bailly’s fan-pleasing tackling needed to keep them at bay.

Demarai Gray and Kelechi Iheanacho were fast in attack while James Maddison’s 28th minute shot produced David de Gea’s first impressive save of the season in front of the Stretford End.

“Come on Leicester!” hollered the 3,000 travelling fans as their team pushed forward for an equaliser and United were put on the back-foot.

Enjoying being in the ascendancy “Park the bus, Man United” was the next song from the Leicester support.

Teams used to come to Old Trafford and defend against better United sides, now they are more emboldened.

Central defender Harry Maguire, a United target until the close of the transfer window the previous day, stood in the middle of the pitch with time to choose where to hook the ball forward.

Leicester would have 13 shots to United’s eight and 54 per cent of possession, they won praise from Mourinho, but they did not score the most goals and United were able to bring on attacking talent in the second half to change things up.

A post shared by Paul Labile Pogba (@paulpogba) on

As Anthony Martial, linked with a move away in the transfer window, warmed up to applause from United fans, United fellow forward Romelu Lukaku came on after 65 minutes.

The Belgian should have doubled the lead with 13 minutes remaining but he took too long after being set up by Sanchez and Schmeichel rushed out to save his effort.

That did not prove too costly as Luke Shaw made sure of victory when he got on the end of a Juan Mata pass to find the net from a tight angle. It was his first ever goal in almost seven years of senior football.

“The best feeling,” was how Shaw described scenes of him running towards the seats where the players’ families sit and celebrating in a cathartic release of years of frustration.

“The performance was very complete, he just has to keep going,” said Mourinho of the left-back, who he has been often critical of in the past. “The mentality and tactical discipline was very good.”

Mourinho cut a much happier figure then the one who had seemed to have the world on his shoulders during pre-season.

The Portuguese had smiled during the game as supporters, led by a noisy group in J-Stand, sang his name.

“With the circumstances, a good performance,” Mourinho said. “Pre-season was very hard and we needed this fantastic experience by the players.

"Some fantastic performances, the boys with a proper pre-season – Shaw, Darmian and Pereira -were in much better condition and better.”

They’ll need to be if United have a chance of stopping champions City this season, but up in the directors’ box, his boss Ed Woodward had a big smile on his face.

Old Trafford was at peace with itself, at least until the next storm rolls in – and not even a 92 minute Leicester goal from Jamie Vardy could change that.

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