Man United falter at the death yet again

Manchester United’s season-long inability to win games they dominate came back to haunt them yet again in Brussels as a late goal from Anderlecht in the Europa League quarter-final denied them victory and sent Jose Mourinho’s side into Sunday’s clash against his old club Chelsea with a familiar air of frustration hanging in the air.

Man United falter at the death yet again

The truth is that United looked home and dry in Belgium ahead of next week’s second leg until, out of the blue, a stunning 85th minute header from Leander Dendoncker, rising effortlessly above Matteo Darmian, changed the whole feeling of the night.

On the face of it a 1-1 draw in the first leg of a major European tie is still a positive result and leaves Mourinho’s side as favourites to go through; but in a season in which United have drawn 14 games — and on a night when Henrikh Mkhitaryan put them ahead in a match they controlled — it still leaves a bitter taste to deal with.

“We need to be more ruthless,” said Michael Carrick afterwards. “It’s not a bad result but we’re better than that. It’s frustrating.”

Once again United lacked the killer instinct to put an inferior side to the sword after controlling possession and managing the game so well for 85 minutes. This was the sixth time this season that United have led by a goal but failed to win the game.

Given the quality of the performance for most of the match this should have been a comfortable victory — and it should have sent United into Sunday’s game against Antoni Conte’s Premier League leaders with a spring in their step. Instead the pressure is right back on them.

There is no doubt this weekend’s match at Old Trafford, pitting the Special One against his former club, is the fixture most fans would have been looking forward to most this week and nobody would have forgiven him for prioritising it. But the fact he didn’t must make this result even more frustrating.

Mourinho fielded a strong side in Brussels, Ibrahmovic and all, and was rewarded with a first-half goal from Mkhitaryan — a vital away goal.

That, at least, underlines Mourinho’s desire to win this competition, a message that was sent out long ago when you consider his team selection for early-round fixtures which other managers would have treated as a run-out for the reserves. It is partly the prospect of a guaranteed place in the Champions League for the winner of the final in Lisbon which has enchanted him but also the irresistible glint of silverware now the final stages are so close.

“There is a special feeling because this is the only competition we can win,” he insisted pre-match.

“There is obviously no chance to win the Premier League. But we share our motivations and our ambitions with seven other teams. Anderlecht is the first battle. We have travelled all around Europe to be here. Now let’s push.”

Mourinho has won the trophy before — with Porto way back in 2003 when his team beat Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in a fiery final — and the tie had a sheen of nostalgia thanks to the fact that Anderlecht away was Manchester United’s first ever European Cup tie back in 1956. For the record they won 2-0 in Brussels that night before storming to a 10-0 victory in the second leg, played at Maine Road because Old Trafford still didn’t have floodlights.

It’s almost impossible to over-exaggerate how much has changed for United, and for football, since that European debut but nevertheless the Belgian league leaders, who scrambled through the early stages of this competition and who have largely avoided Europe’s big guns to reach the last 16, were serious underdogs.

In a well-controlled first half, United were comfortably the better team and arrived at the break already 1-0 ahead.

The goal came from Mkhitaryan after 36 minutes, firing home from a tight angle after Marcus Rashford’s first-team shot had been palmed away by goalkeeper Ruben Martinez.

It was a well-deserved lead when you consider Jesse Lingard had earlier seen an effort come back off the post and Rashford’s long-range shot shortly after had scraped against the crossbar before heading to safety.

The second half was more evenly contested but with Anderlecht leaving top scorer Lukasz Teodorczyk on the bench because of injury until late on, the home side didn’t really have the artillery to hurt United in a meaningful way.

The arrival of substitute Hanni did create a brief flurry of optimism for the Belgians but Mkhitaryan had an opportunity to extend United’s lead before Marouane Fellaini, on for Rashford, stung the palms of Martinez with 15 minutes to go.

Paul Pogba, who hasn’t scored for 13 games and who spoke at length in the pre-match press conference about the unfair expectations on him to play like a superhero, also saw an effort saved but could nevertheless look back on a positive and selfless performance.

The problem was, however, that in the end it was all spoiled by that late equaliser. Haven’t we been here before?

MANCHESTER UNITED:

Romero 6, Valencia 7, Bailly 6, Rojo 6, Darmian 5 Carrick 8, Pogba 7, Mkhitaryan 7 Lingard 6 (Martial 63; 6), Rashford 7 (Fellaini 75; 6), Ibrahimovic 6.

ANDERLECHT:

Ruben Martinez 7, Appiah 7, Mbodji 6, Nuytinck 6, Obradovic 7, Bruno 6 (Chipciu 58), Tielemans 8, Dendoncker 7, Stanciu 5 (Hanni 65), Acheampong 7, Thelin 6.

Referee:

Felix Brych

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