EUROPA LEAGUE:ANDERLECHT 1 : MANCHESTER UNITED 1 REDS ARE PEGGED BACK IN BRUSSELS
Jose Mourinho may be right in identifying this tournament as Manchester United’s best route to the Champions League — but as the last five minutes here showed, that still doesn’t make it a done deal.
The odds continue to favour Manchester United, particularly with the away goal from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Anderlecht’s late equaliser was deserved and they will be dangerous on the counter attack at Old Trafford, as they were here.
Mourinho must have felt relatively at ease in the moments before Anderlecht’s equaliser, though, the home team tiring deep into the second half. They had played well without greatly testing Sergio Romero in goal, but a break down the left destroyed all United’s good defensive work. Left back Ivan Obradovic crossed and there was Leander Dendoncker, a holding midfielder by trade, but thrown forward here as Anderlecht risked all.
ANDERLECHT: Ruben 6; Appiah 6, Mbodji 8, Nuytinck 6 Obradovic 6.5; Tielemans 6, Dendoncker 7, Stanciu 6 (Hanni 65 6.5) Bruno 5.5 (Chipciu 58 6), Kiese Thelin 6 (Teodorczyk 75 6), Acheampong 6.5
SUBS NOT USED: Boeckx, Deschacht, Spajic, Capel
GOALS: Dendoncker 86
MANCHESTER UNITED: Romero 6, Valencia 7, Bailly 7, Rojo 6.5, Darmian 7, Carrick (C) 8, Pogba 6.5, Mkhitaryan 6.5 (Fosu-Mensah 90), Lingard 6.5 (Martial 63 – 6), Rashford (Fellaini 75 – 6), Ibrahimovic 6.5.
SUBS NOT USED: De Gea, Blind, Shaw, Herrera.
His header was magnificent, giving Romero no chance. The goal was a particular pity for Marouane Fellaini, given it was precisely the sort of event he had been introduced to stop. Instead, he failed to track his man who, instead, was left to jump with Matteo Darmian.
Michael Carrick said after the game that Manchester United had got sloppy. If they do find a way of qualifying for the Champions League, they lose that trait or it will all be over very quickly.
Going into this game, Anderlecht were few people’s idea of Europa League champions — available at a generous 33-1 to win the competition.
Yet while the away goal gives Mourinho’s team a significant advantage in next week’s second leg, this was still a testing 90 minutes for them in the Belgian capital.
Anderlecht are certainly no fools and with cooler heads in the penalty area could have caused United considerably more problems.
What will frustrate Mourinho most of all is the period before Anderlecht equalised when United could have put the outcome of the tie beyond doubt with a second goal. Goalkeeper Martinez Ruben made a couple of good saves, the best of all from Paul Pogba, who really should have scored after 83 minutes. Mourinho was scathing about his forwards, too.
Whether he will now make plain his Europa League priorities by resting players for the match against Chelsea on Sunday is another matter. He has his pride. But if United are to take the Europa League with the utmost seriousness, it is something that cannot be ruled out.
They cannot take Anderlecht lightly, and this should serve as a warning. The Belgians were Manchester United’s first opponents in Europe, in 1956, and lost the tie 12-0 on aggregate — but the days of walkovers have long passed.
They are, mind you, very much the underdogs still.
If confirmation of the strength of the Belgian league was required —Anderlecht top it this season — it came when Roberto Martinez, manager of the national team, was interviewed before the game.
Asked about Anderlecht prospect Youri Tielemans — a first team regular since 16 and closing in on 200 appearances at the age of 19 — Martinez said he would have to leave Belgium to progress, but hoped he would ensure it was to a club where he would start.
It is an unfortunate fact that Belgium produce outstanding footballers, then surrender them to clubs in other countries.
Anderlecht had the best of the game for the opening 15 minutes when their speed caused Manchester United problems.
Massimo Bruno should have done better after only two minutes when fed the ball in a good position, he took a swing at it and missed completely.
Soon after, Manchester United goalkeeper Romero suffered similar jitters when, tearing off his line to clear a ball over the top, he aimed a wild kick and succeeded only in slicing the ball behind him for a corner
Romero made ambitious claims that he had been fouled, no doubt to cover his embarrassment. In the ninth minute, Bruno fed the pacy Frank Acheampong on the left, his cross just out of reach of any takers in the United penalty area.
Then in the 15th minute, United got their first proper sight of Tielemans as the fulcrum of an outstanding passing move that whipped through midfield.
It culminated in Bruno firing a ball into the penalty area which clipped Anderlecht striker Isaac Kiese Thelin, who turned it out for a corner.
Mkhitaryan was booked for a foul on Tielemans after 24 minutes. The teenager, captain on the night, did not have the greatest game, although he did spend much of the first half looking after Pogba.
Equally, there was no way Anderlecht could continue with this ferocity and, sure enough, they began to fade.
As they did so Manchester United’s class showed. They might not have had as much of the ball early on, but the possession statistics favoured them by half-time and, more importantly, they were making it count.
Unlike Anderlecht, whose chances hadn’t amounted to much, United looked like scoring with every first-half foray.
Their first real attack of note should have been a goal, Rashford crossing for Ibrahimovic, whose effort from close range was blocked.
Out it came to Jesse Lingard who, in a good position, just inside the six-yard box, could only steer his follow-in on to a post. A minute later, Rashford tried to take goalkeeper Ruben by surprise with a shot from 30 yards that curled just wide.
The deadlock was broken after 36 minutes, Mkhitaryan scoring his fourth goal of the Europa League campaign.
Antonio Valencia crossed and Rashford’s shot was kept out by Ruben, but only as far as Mkhitaryan at the far post. He didn’t have much of an angle but finished with power and certainty, a vital away goal.
That United did not hold this lead, or increase it, is becoming increasingly common.
They have drawn 14 games this season, ten of them by a 1-1 scoreline, and in six of those they have led. Remember when they were the comeback kings?
Being on the receiving end isn’t the United way at all.