By Matthew Galea
After a slim period in front of goals, the floodgates finally opened as Manchester United returned to the European stage to dismantle Robin Van Persie’s Fenerbache 4-1 in a crucial Europa League group stage clash.
The former United striker managed to find the back of the net at Old Trafford once again – as he usually did during his time at the club – but even that proved something of a highlight in a largely entertaining night in Manchester.
United manager Jose Mourinho was clearly delighted with the efforts of his players, many of whom have struggled for regular game time and were looking to impress. Here are five things we learned from the game.
CARRICK IN CHELSEA CONTENTION
It seems ridiculous to even suggest that Ander Herrera’s starting position could be in trouble ahead of the hugely anticipated clash at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea on Sunday.
But how long can Mourinho continue to ignore the undeniable quality of Michael Carrick?
Carrick, 35, was praised by the Portuguese manager for “bringing balance” to United’s midfield and it is no surprise that arguably Paul Pogba’s best performance since re-joining United came alongside the former England international.
Whatever Carrick lacks in pace, he more than makes up for his reading of the game, his timing in the challenge and his ability to completely control the tempo of the game.
The Englishman almost single-handedly lulled Fenerbache into a false sense of security, spending much of the opening 30 minutes passing conservatively, shifting his opponents around the pitch as he took the ball from defence into midfield, before with one gracious swing of his classy right foot he sent United into overdrive, launching the most brilliant pass to find Juan Mata’s smart run and gorgeous touch to send Fenerbache’s defence reeling, eventually fouling Mata for a penalty.
From there, it was all United and Carrick’s ability to single-handedly control the middle third of the pitch gave Pogba free license to collaborate with Mata and United’s front three of Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard with devastating results.
It probably will not be enough to earn Carrick the nod at Stamford Bridge, given Herrera’s recent form, but it should at the very least prompt the question.
ROONEY QUIETLY IMPRESSES, BUT NOT ENOUGH
Rooney might just be the most scrutinised player in world football at the moment.
The hounds are out for the United skippers head after a poor start to the season and – to be honest – the England captain has done little to really prove the doubters wrong.
But even his sternest critics would struggle to argue Rooney was poor against Fenerbache. He certainly did not amaze, but his contribution to the team was good and certainly far greater than what Zlatan Ibrahimovic offered at Anfield on Monday.
Of course, United also had more possession, played higher up the park and got closer to the centre forward position as well, but nonetheless, Rooney linked well with his fellow attackers.
He was crucial to United’s two goals from open play, winning the ball and finding Lingard in the lead up to Pogba’s brilliant second goal before going onto claim an assist with his lovely little lay-off early in the second half which ensured Lingard went from provider to goalscorer.
Like Carrick, it is doubtful his performance will be enough to force him into the first team against Chelsea, but it certainly has not hurt his chances.
POGBA’S BEST YET?
If Pogba was frustrating against Liverpool, he was anything but against Fenerbache.
The Frenchman linked superbly with the front three to create a number of openings for himself and his team-mates and he was clinical when the chances fell his way.
His unconventional run-up did nothing to distract him from putting away United’s first penalty, while he exemplified his class when he curled his beautiful first-time effort into the top corner from well outside the box with the last kick of the first half.
And when he was not scoring them, he was helping to create them, working well with Rooney in the lead up to Lingard’s goal and United’s fourth.
A nice timely confidence booster ahead of a big trip to London to take on Chelsea.
WHERE IS MKHITARYAN?
This is more of a question than a lesson, but nonetheless it warrants discussion.
What is going on with Henrikh Mkhitaryan?
Mourinho made a big point at his press conference prior to the game that the Armenian had overcome his injury concerns and was back in full training. While he never said he would pick him for the game, Luke Shaw was the only player guaranteed a start, it was still something of a shock to see the creative player not at least named among the substitutes.
It is a long season and there are plenty of games to come, but one wonders at what point Mkhitaryan will get a fair shot, given the expenses involved in bringing him to United from Borussia Dortmund.
Perhaps he was kept out of the team with Chelsea in mind, but where would he play? And who would he replace?
OOOH, ROBIN VAN PERSIE
If nothing else, United’s thrashing of Fenerbache reminded us all how much we all still love Van Persie.
The Dutchman will always have a special place in United hearts for his incredible goalscoring antics which led United to league title number 20 and the ovation he received upon scoring his goal was a far better send off than Louis van Gaal afforded him when he sold him last season.
These days, United have a player even older than him leading the line, so poor old Van Persie must occasionally ponder what might have been. The Dutchman proved he still offers plenty of creativity on the ball, deadly delivery from set-pieces and a potent goal threat.