Frenchman's comeback has revived belief they can give neighbours City a run for Premier League title
Paul Pogba return already a shot in the arm for Manchester United
Manchester United fans do not yet have a terrace song that has caught on for Paul Pogba, but they awarded the Frenchman a standing ovation when he was substituted 69 minutes into his side’s 4-1 win against Newcastle United.
Jose Mourinho brought the French midfielder back into his team after a 12-game injury absence. He also welcomed back Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo after seven month spells away, though they started on the bench against Rafa Benitez’s mid-table side.
In a further injection of positivity after a mediocre run, Mourinho went with an attacking line up, with exciting youngsters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in the same starting XI for a league game for the first time all season and only the sixth time under the Portuguese.
Expectations were thus high against the Geordies who have a wretched record at Old Trafford, but it was the visitors who went ahead and impressed when Dwight Gayle gave his side a shock 14th-minute lead, a well worked goal aided by a Victor Lindelof slip.
It was the first league goal conceded at home all season – and few inside Old Trafford could deny that Benitez’s initially tactically superior side did not deserve it. Mourinho described their tactics as “very experienced, very intelligent”.
Mourinho’s men, who had lost two of their three previous league games and had scored only twice in their last four, suddenly looked in a very awkward place.
Then they began to work up through the gears, scoring twice before half time. Pogba, with a red streak in his hair, pulled the strings, setting up Martial with a cross for the equaliser after 37 minutes after dummying and beating Isaac Hayden.
Pogba’s moment of magic was what Old Trafford needed. He can beat a man, create and inspire. United have missed that recently.
Chris Smalling headed in another fine Ashley Young cross to make it 2-1 just before half time, before Pogba got one for himself as the home team dominated in the second half, knocking in the ball after Rashford cleverly headed a Romelu Lukaku cross into his path.
You could feel the tension lifting inside an Old Trafford not short of angst in recent weeks. It was the seventh time United had scored four goals this season.
“He affects our football,” Mourinho said when asked of Pogba’s man of the match performance.
“When he was injured I decided to close my mouth, we cannot be crying, we have to find solutions. But we all know – myself, and the fellow players – that some players influence the level of the team. So with him we had much more creation, we had a second way out from the first and I’m so happy.”
As Pogba was leaving the field, and applauding a sated Stretford End after 70 minutes, Lukaku hammered the ball in from six yards for United’s final goal and his first in seven matches.
Ibrahimovic came on for Martial with 13 minutes left to another ovation and the Swede forced an excellent save from Rob Elliot after a last minute bicycle kick. Asked about his faster than expected recovery from injury, Ibrahimovic later compared himself to a lion.
The win kept United second, still eight points behind a City side they host on December 9. That gap remains significant and City do look imperious, but the players feel that if they can beat their neighbours then the gap can be quickly overhauled.
That belief shows the level of optimism back at Old Trafford.
There is no doubting the boost that having four important players returning from injury has brought, giving Mourinho options all over the field.
After a season interrupted by three international breaks so far, United now have games thick and fast – 14 in the six weeks before the end of 2017. United played only seven times in the previous six weeks.
With Pogba back, confidence will continue to rise. Teammates respect him as a player, but they also appreciate the light-heartedness and humour that he brings to the dressing room at a club which does not always appear at ease with itself.
If United are to make a serious title challenge this season, Pogba demonstrated in the 69 minutes of his first game for two months on Saturday that he will be at the centre of it.