They got a clinical 2-0 win over Benfica on Tuesday night thanks to an own goal and Daley Blind’s second-half penalty, although they had to ride their luck a little bit as Benfica had by far their best display in this season’s competition.
Here are seven deadly stats from the game…
AN UNWANTED FIRST FOR MARTIAL
Anthony Martial doesn’t come across as the most obvious candidate to be a first-choice penalty taker, but he’s had that designation this season ever since Romelu Lukaku missed one against Leicester City in August.
He has a languid style from the spot, which can interpreted either as poise or extremely casual, but whichever it is, until Tuesday it had worked perfectly. But his effort from the spot in this game was definitely poor, relying too much on the keeper going the wrong way. And Mile Svilar didn’t.
Speaking of Svilar, the player who became the Champions League’s youngest-ever starting goalkeeper in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago didn’t particularly enjoy the occasion that time, giving away United’s winner with an error, but his penalty save ensured his name would be etched in the history books for the right reason at least once in his career.
HE’LL BE SICK OF MAN UNITED, THOUGH
Unfortunately for Svilar, his night would get worse. The next record he set was one he’ll hope someone breaks fairly soon.
Although he’s not prolific, Matic has developed a reputation for his long-range strikes, and his latest one caught Svilar out. The goalkeeper’s starting position was slightly off and his dive to try saving Matic’s shot was half-hearted. Even then, however, to see the ball hit the post and then go in off his back was a stroke of poor fortune.
It was the second time in two games against Manchester United that Svilar had been involved in a goal in unfortunate circumstances. He’ll hope he doesn’t have to play them again for a long, long time.
MATA BECOMING A MOURINHO PLAYER
The Juan Mata-Jose Mourinho story has been oft repeated. Sold, while he was the reigning Chelsea player of the year, by Mourinho upon his return to Stamford Bridge. Thought to be a prime target for a cull when the Portuguese arrived at United. Now thriving and, slowly, becoming the sort of player he loves.
Mourinho may say that this United team is different from his Chelsea sides, and thus the players who fit are different and Mata suits his United team. While that may be true, make no mistake: you can’t consistently play under him as an attacking player if you don’t put in the work defensively.
Mata’s improved on that end – an improvement that began before Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford, largely triggered by Louis Van Gaal’s exacting style of management – and it’s showing now. After a slow start on Tuesday, the Spaniard began popping up everywhere, both in an attacking sense and defensively.
UNITED’S SURPRISE GOAL-SCORER
If Martial is a surprise penalty-taker, then what about the man who actually scored from the spot?
Ander Herrera, Marcus Rashford, Lukaku, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were all on the pitch for United’s second penalty on the night, earned by an electric run down the left from Rashford. Any one of them would have been expected to take the spot-kick. Instead, it was Daley Blind.
Blind had never scored a penalty for United and had never scored in Europe for either Ajax or United, so it was a big surprise when the Dutchman stepped up to take this one. It seemed like a Mourinho decision made on the spot, as both Herrera and Lukaku showed interest before Blind walked up to take the kick.
Blind did exactly what most people who aren’t used to taking penalties would do – drilled the ball straight down the middle, no-nonsense, while the keeper dived to his left.
BIRTHDAY BOY RASHFORD’S INSTANT IMPACT
Rashford’s career as a teenager was the stuff of dreams. It’s in the past, now, as the Englishman celebrated his 20th birthday on Tuesday.
20 is still young, of course, and Rashford’s youthful exuberance was on show after he came on for Martial late in the second half. He was immediately a threat for United down the left, showing his defender a clean pair of heels on more than one occasion and setting up United’s second goal with his mazy run.
On Saturday it was Martial coming off the bench, replacing Rashford and scoring the winning goal. Tuesday it was Rashford’s turn, earning a penalty that helped United put the game to bed. The 1-2 punch of Martial and Rashford continues to work.
FORTRESS OLD TRAFFORD
If Jose Mourinho has one managerial maxim, it’s this: don’t lose at home.
His best sides have always been close to unbeatable on home turf, and this Manchester United side is nearing that level now.