I Was There

Published on December 6th, 2017 | by Sam Bennett

Rashford stars as United progress into the knockout stages

In terms of pure spectacle, this had nothing on Manchester United’s trip to the Emirates at the weekend.

Nevertheless, sandwiched between that 3-1 over Arsenal and this Sunday’s Manchester derby, securing United’s qualification to the Champions’ League knockout stages for the first time since 2014 would likely still have been the top priority for Jose Mourinho.

CSKA posed much more of a challenge at Old Trafford than they had at home back in September, when they were hammered 4-1, but United had to come from behind at Old Trafford to ensure they will finish top of Group F.

A two-minute salvo from Romelu Lukaku and the superb Marcus Rashford proved enough to maintain their 100% home record this season, and send the Russian side into the Europa League.

Rampant Rashford

Rashford only spent a minute or two on the pitch against Arsenal on Saturday, and the rest watching on with likely mixed emotions as good mate Jesse Lingard notched a brace to stake his claim for a starting spot at home against City. After this display, it will be a proverbial selection migraine for Mourinho against the Blues.

The 20-year-old striker was at his scintillating best against Moscow, beating the usually robust pairing of Vasili Berezutskiy and Sergey Ignashevich almost at will and acting as the spearhead of United’s attack despite the presence of his £85m partner.

It was Rashford who sparked the game into life in the third minute, racing onto a through ball from Lukaku before striking the foot of the post with Igor Akinfeev in the Moscow goal well beaten.

Ten minutes later, he forced the keeper into a smart save down to his left after being teed up by Juan Mata.

Sucker punch

It was then time for another young Englishman to come close to breaking the deadlock.

‘It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away’

Luke Shaw, something of a forgotten man at Old Trafford after a seemingly never-ending battle with injuries (and at times, his own manager), came close to marking his first start in over 200 days with a sumptuous goal when he met Antonio Valencia’s cross on the volley, only to be denied by an impressive reflex stop from Akinfeev.

The rebound fell at the feet of Lukaku, but it didn’t even seem to surprise the Old Trafford faithful when the Belgian striker could only find Akinfeev’s gloves from a couple of yards out.

As half-time approached, it was time for United to receive a dose of the medicine they had given to Arsenal at the weekend. CSKA had created very little in the first half, but they caught Shaw napping to play Mario Fernandes in down the right side, who picked out Vitinho on the edge of the box with his pull-back.

The Brazilian struck at goal, but despite his best efforts to get out of the way the ball hit Alan Dzagoev, standing in what appeared to be an offside position, before nestling in the corner of the net.

Even the CSKA players took a moment before celebrating, but the decision was indeed the correct one as Daley Blind, who had slid off the pitch in an attempt to block the initial cross, was playing Dzagoev onside.

Like London buses

It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away.

In truth, Paul Pogba wholly underwhelmed in his final game before beginning a three-match suspension after being sent off at Arsenal.

However, he did offer the fans a glimpse of what they’ll be missing for the 64th minute equaliser, chipping an inch-perfect ball into the path of Lukaku, who easily held off Vasin before poking a volley past the stranded Akinfeev to level the score.

There are some United supporters who are yet to fully warm to the big Belgian, but his decision to immediately grab the ball out of the net and run back to kick-off United’s search for a winner, in lieu of any celebration, goes firmly along with the philosophy of the club and should be noted.

And so it was that just a minute later, there was a reason to celebrate for United.

Moscow, still scrambling after the first goal, failed to clear a hopeful long ball, and Mata showed his flair for the creative by chesting and volleying a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of the rampant Rashford, who buried his left-footed strike into the far corner to complete the comeback.

‘Strong reaction’

Most would expect the away support to be disgruntled, watching their side throw away a lead in a little under three minutes, but the Moscow fans instead whipped off their shirts in unison.

Maybe they were making a point about it being positively tropical compared to what they are used to in Moscow. Brave but a bit pointless.

After making six changes to his side for the game, Mourinho declared himself pleased with the performance.

“In the second half, we had that strong reaction, we really didn’t want to lose the match and I think the boys played professionally. I was pleased with the attitude of the players. They had pride to play.”

But despite securing qualification ahead of second-placed FC Basel, Mourinho refused to speculate on the identity of United’s last-16 opponent, instead saying he wanted to “shut up and forget about it”.

“I think it doesn’t matter which team we get in the draw – I don’t think that team will be jumping with happiness to play against us.”

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