Zlatan Ibrahimovic injury may save Jose Mourinho a tough decision
United have been at their most dangerous of late with Marcus Rashford up top
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffers an injury during the Europa League quarter-final second leg match against Anderlecht at Old Trafford. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
The final act of normal time featured the sad sight of Zlatan Ibrahimovic twisting his right knee and being taken off as the tie moved into extra time. Yet this would have a beneficial side effect for Manchester United with what happened in the 107th minute of the contest.
Ibrahimovic’s exit meant a reshuffle as on came Anthony Martial, who took Marcus Rashford’s wide-left berth, with the No 19 becoming centre forward – and his deflected left-foot finish took his side into the Europa League semi-finals.
This moment alone answered the question that was thrown up by United’s 2-0 defeat of Chelsea on Sunday. That victory was derived from José Mourinho outsmarting Antonio Conte by fielding a Rashford-Jesse Lingard attack and having Ander Herrera man-marking Eden Hazard.
As Anderlecht possessed no talent in the class of the Blues’ No 10 there was no expectation of a similar ploy for this quarter-final second leg. So, the intrigue was up top: given how Rashford and Lingard performed without the benched Ibrahimovic, could they offer a repeat with the Swede reinstated?
Mourinho had criticised all three, plus Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, following the 1-1 draw at Anderlecht in the first leg. That latest display of duff finishing meant this tie was less comfortable than it should have been as the return began. Lingard hit a post in Brussels, Rashford was uneven, and Ibrahimovic had one of those evenings when the ball bounces off him and he appears ordinary while slowing United down. As half-time came and went the evidence suggested Ibrahimovic was the odd man out again.
In the opening 45 minutes, in which Marcos Rojo was carried off injured, Mhkitaryan’s opener was answered by Sofiane Hanni, with the Swede a virtual passenger once more. Rashford and Lingard were not. Following a clumsy Ibrahimovic touch, it was Rashford’s pace that stretched Anderlecht’s rearguard and led to United’s 10th-minute opener. Rashford saw the on-rushing Mkhitaryan and coolly rolled him the ball and the Armenian made no mistake.
Beforehand Mourinho said: “If we have the same kind of attitude [as against Chelsea], pressing high, being strong, being intense, recover the ball as fast as possible, it is easy for the attacking players to have more in the ball. In the end it is a collective instinct.”
This was the tale of the majority of the opening half as Lingard and Rashford pulled Anderlecht out of shape with runs that caused havoc.
The Mourinho managerial approach is not one of an unbending philosophy that is adhered to whatever the opposition, which is unlike, say, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Instead, the Portuguese has a game-by-game plan tailored specifically to the opposition. He indicated this following Chelsea’s schooling. “Maybe we didn’t ‘rest’ players ahead of Thursday, we just chose the team we thought was the best team,” the 54-year-old said.
The blueprint against Anderlecht was broadly the same as for the first leg except Mourinho required far better finishing. The best-laid plans do not take into account an injury that punches a hole in the side, of course. And 22 minutes into match number 54 of United’s gruelling season Rojo was taken off with what appeared a serious knee injury.
This brought Daley Blind on and reduced the number of centre backs the manager trusts to one: Eric Bailly, alongside whom the Dutchman lined up. Blind operated in the position under Louis van Gaal but Mourinho has largely overlooked him and Rojo’s departure proved costly, as Blind’s failure to clear allowed Hanni’s equaliser.
Rojo’s injury was a dismal sight for Mourinho and as the second half began the 1-1 scoreline (2-2 on aggregate) was too. With Phil Jones and Chris Smalling out until the campaign’s final matches at least, Mourinho had only Marouane Fellaini as an auxiliary replacement among his substitutes should another defender go down. “We will give everything to try to reach the semi-finals,” the midfielder had said. “The stadium is three times bigger than the stadium of Anderlecht so it will be a completely different atmosphere. We have done very well in the games [at home in Europe] and scored a lot of goals too. This game will be different.”
It was a case of the same old unwanted story, though, as Lingard failed to finish off an impressive run from Luke Shaw, and United existed precariously. Yet at least the 24-year-old had sprinted in on Rubén Martínez’s goal while Ibrahimovic wandered aimlessly behind.
At Anderlecht the Swede was retained all game, as Lingard and Rashford were sacrificed. Ibrahimovic’s 28 goals may have been why but after the Rashford-Lingard show against Chelsea, Mourinho surely contemplated reinstating the pairing by removing his on-field totem.
But no. Once more Lingard was hooked as Fellani entered for the contest’s closing. The truth, though, was that when Ibrahimovic was forced off United rallied and won through. If he is out for the rest of the season this may not be the greatest loss.