AFC Bournemouth 0 Manchester United 2
Three days before the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham, a low-key win suffices for Manchester United. That is what they achieved thanks to goals by Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku. The result tightens their hold on second place in the Premier League and raises spirits, at least a little, before they resume the pursuit of the only trophy they can win this season.
José Mourinho made seven changes to the lineup who were embarrassed at home by West Brom on Sunday and United fans could debate whether each alteration was for reasons of rest or punishment. But perhaps the most intrigue concerned a change the manager did not make: did the inclusion of Paul Pogba, who was withdrawn before the hour against West Brom, indicate Mourinho wanted to see a performance that would convince him that the Frenchman deserves to start in Saturday's showdown with Tottenham? Mourinho said his charges should view this match as an opportunity to play their way into contention for a spot in the semi-final and that instruction may have been directed at the club's record signing more than at players who have been on the fringes for months.
The fringe players given a chance here to impress – or, perhaps, to add another word to their long goodbyes – included Luke Shaw, the left-back making his first appearance since being hauled off at half-time against Brighton last month. The right-back Matteo Darmian was given a first Premier League start since October, while Marouane Fellaini, who is expected to leave Old Trafford on the expiry of his contract in the summer, made his sixth start of the campaign. Marcus Rashford started in a central attacking role in place of Lukaku, who began on the bench.
The peculiar thing about Mourinho’s team this season, of course, is that, beyond personnel selections, it is never clear which United is going to turn up.
Would the team fielded on the south coast perform more like the one that fought back against Manchester City a couple of weeks ago or the shambling outfit exposed by the worst side in the league on Sunday? What was clear from the outset was that Bournemouth were not minded to make things comfortable for the visitors.
Eddie Howe's team, seeking the points that would definitively banish relegation fears, coiled up compactly here to deprive United of space while remaining primed to spring forward on counterattacks. Charlie Daniels instated one such raid in the 10th minute, picking out a run by Callum Wilson, who had escaped the attentions of Phil Jones. The striker fed Jordon Ibe but the winger dragged a shot wide from 20 yards.
United had plenty of possession. Pogba used the ball most times he got it in the first half but the most influential midfielder was Ander Herrera, who continually dropped deep to take the ball off the feet of his centre-backs, seemingly not trusted to try to play their way forwards themselves.
But they only occasionally threatened to unhinge the well-marshalled hosts. Anthony Martial produced snazzy tricks to beat Simon Francis a couple of times, and Rashford and Jesse Lingard combined well in the 15th minute to win a corner, which resulted in Herrera firing off a shot from 18 yards. A deflection took the sting out of the Spaniard's drive. It was all a little drab.
Rashford sparked things up in the 27th minute. He slid in to dispossess Nathan Aké wide on the right and then loped into the box and let fly with a fierce shot that forced a diving save from Asmir Begovic. One minute later United took the lead thanks to a nice move after Bournemouth only half-cleared a corner. Herrera produced a neat pass to reward a clever run by Lingard, who crossed for Smalling to convert from close range.
United bossed the rest of the half even if David de Gea had to bat away a 20-yard shot from Josh King just before the break.
United started the second period as if ordered to wrap up the win as quickly as possible. Martial, Lingard and Rashford tore into the hosts like mischievous sprites. Each seemed eager to put forward a case for starting on Saturday ahead of Alexis Sánchez, for instance. Bournemouth resolved to try to fend them off and hope to equalise on the break. They came close to doing just that in the 56th minute but Wilson was unable to connect with King’s ball across the six-yard box – the striker claimed that was because Shaw had pulled him back but the referee disagreed.
Soon after that Smalling was booked for dragging down Wilson near half-way. One minute later Steve Cook received a similar punishment for a far more brutal tackle on Pogba. As tempers and the tempo rose a touch, the game became more open.
That displeased Mourinho, who decided it was time to introduce Lukaku for Lingard in a bid to finish off the hosts.
Lukaku soon fulfilled his mission. Racing on to a through-ball from Pogba, the Belgian held off Aké and clipped the ball over Begovic and into the net from 12 yards. There might have been a twist if Wilson had been awarded a penalty after a tackle by Smalling, but the referee did not whistle and the travelling fans kept singing.