Man Utd 1 Tottenham 0: For 80 minutes, Manchester United supporters were left wondering where Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been all their lives as the Premier League’s first and only Armenian masterminded a victory that could kick start their club’s season.
For the concluding 10, after he was stretchered off with an injured ankle following a cynical foul by England full-back Danny Rose, those fans and manager Jose Mourinho must have been hoping against hope he does not face more time on the Old Trafford sidelines.
Mkhitaryan arrived in England with a big £26m price tag, big reputation — the Bundesliga’s player of last season — and the expectation he would play a pivotal role in Mourinho’s United revolution.
That expectation did not last long, however. Finally handed a start in the Manchester derby three months ago, Mkhitaryan survived just 45 underwhelming minutes, hauled off by Mourinho not to be seen again until he started at Goodison Park last weekend.
Here, however, was the Mkhitaryan welcomed so warmly by his manager last summer, bossing long periods of proceedings, sparking many of United’s best attacking moments and conjuring up the game’s only goal with a lethal knockout blow of which watching former boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko would surely have approved. All the more reason Mourinho can only hope the early diagnosis that Mkhitaryan will only miss a handful of games is accurate.
“The injury doesn’t look like a bad one,” said Mourinho.
“It doesn’t look like one that needs surgery or months of recovery. It depends always on the player’s anatomy, physiology, mentality but for me it is not a big thing. I would say a couple of weeks out.”
That first league goal came just before the half-hour as Harry Kane lost possession to Ander Herrera around the halfway line, the Spaniard slipping through a perfectly-weighted pass for Mkhitaryan to chase, outpacing two defenders before depositing an unstoppable shot into the roof of Hugo Lloris’s net.
Mkhitaryan had almost made an impact inside two minutes of a game which United surely needed to win if they are to salvage anything from this so-far moribund league campaign.
He led a break, sent Zlatan Ibrahimovic away on the right and his pass picked out Paul Pogba for a shot which had Lloris scurrying low to save.
Later in the half, Mkhitaryan saw a shot deflected behind by Jan Vertonghen, with Herrera again testing the Spurs keeper from the resulting corner, while Ibrahimovic met Antonio Valencia’s cross later in the half with a shot that Lloris again stopped.
Yet this is not a Spurs team to be taken lightly, as their proximity to the Champions League positions proves.
Heung-Min Son’s early shot curled wide, Christian Eriksen’s 25-yard free-kick beat the wall but not David de Gea, and Son, again, cut in and saw his shot from just outside the area tipped over the bar impressively by the goalkeeper.
That set the tone for an end-to-end second half which could have brought about any conceivable result with few grounds for complaint.
Kyle Walker’s clever back-heel let in Eriksen whose fierce shot was punched away from danger by de Gea while an Eriksen free-kick soon picked out the unmarked Victor Wanyama who somehow missed the target with a header which was cleared behind by Ibrahimovic of all people.
United responded, Pogba starting to cause problems just outside the visitors’ box and winning a 62nd minute free-kick which he took himself, hitting the cross-bar.
The Frenchman and Herrera then exchanged passes with Pogba’s bouncing shot forcing another decent save from Lloris before United were forced to withstand a late Spurs charge that raised the anxiety levels around the stadium — little surprise given the fact they were trying to avoid a fifth consecutive home draw.
Fortunately, a beautifully-hit Eriksen free-kick, well kept out by de Gea again, was the greatest thing they had to worry about… apart from the sight of Mkhitaryan being stretchered off and the injury-time introduction of Marouane Fellaini, who gifted Everton an equalising penalty seven days earlier.
“I accept it because from the fans, you have to accept everything,” said Mourinho of the booing that greeted Fellaini’s arrival. “Fans that are giving so much to us but they’re not getting the results they expect from us.
“They are supportive to us so they can also be critical.
“I think the point they had in their mind was the mistake Marouane made at Everton, nothing more than that.
“He is a player I like, a person I like and the person is more important than the player. He will always have my protection and my trust.”
Tottenham, meanwhile, have broader concerns as they attempt to resurrect their title bid with home games against Hull and Burnley in the coming week although manager Mauricio Pochettino remained suitably upbeat.
“There is not too much concern,” said Pochettino of the 10 point gap they now face to leaders Chelsea. “The Premier League is tough.
“We know Chelsea started the season badly but, for different circumstances, they changed their system and now look where they are. There is a lot of time to recover and close the gap, only we need to believe that. It is a long way until the end of the season.”
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1):
De Gea 8; Valencia 6, Jones 8, Rojo 6, Darmian 6; Herrera 8 (Fellaini 90), Carrick 7; Mkhitaryan 9 (Bailly 84), Pogba 8, Martial 5 (Rashford 71, 6); Ibrahimovic 7.
Subs not used:
Mata, Rooney, Blind, Romero.
Lloris 8; Walker 7, Alderweireld 7, Vertonghen 6, Rose 7; Wanyama 7, Dembele 6 (Winks 65, 6); Eriksen 9 (Nkoudou 82), Alli 6, Son 6 (Sissoko 56, 6); Kane 5.
Robert Madeley (West Yorkshire) 6
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