The Real Madrid campaign has begun but Paul Pogba suggested there is only one campaign he is focused on. After a two-month goal drought, he regained the totemic form of his first two months under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his talismanic status. On an afternoon where Europa League football temporarily became a probable rather than possible for Manchester United next season, Pogba stepped up.
United’s performance against a sprightly West Ham was largely reminiscent of the dark days under their previous manager this season. West Ham, winless away from home in the Premier League this calendar year, were a width of the goalframe and a David de Gea fingertip away from making it five defeats in six for United. Old Trafford remains a pregnable fortress.
Solskjaer has lamented some luckless defeats recently and got to be a lucky general. Had the Video Assistant Review been present, West Ham would have taken a 1-0 lead and both of Pogba’s goals came from the penalty spot. Pogba, who had missed his previous spotkick against Southampton last month, eschewed the stuttering run-up and nervelessly converted both efforts from 12 yards.
It was not vintage Pogba but he grabbed the game by the lapels at United’s most vulnerable period and sprang Anthony Martial through to earn the decisive second penalty. That De Gea and Pogba were the matchwinners underlined their significance to United; they are Champions League-standard players who find Europa League football anathema.
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United are fifth for now and that is an accurate gauge of this squad’s strength – or lack of it. Even legislating for the numerous absentees, they resemble Europa League fodder at times and could be hosting Thursday night football for the second season in four next term. That 15-point target Solskjaer set still seems ambitious when three of United’s next five domestic fixtures are at home and they remain unconvincing at Old Trafford.
At this rate, all of Manchester will be cheering on City in the FA Cup final. Should United finish sixth and Watford inflict a Wembley upset on City, United will face the ignominy of a late July Europa League qualifier, due to be staged on the day they have a pre-season fixture scheduled with Tottenham in Shanghai.
Had United not prematurely announced their current manager then Mauricio Pochettino might have bridged the gap in the next manager polls. Tottenham made seven changes against Huddersfield on Saturday lunchtime and walloped them 4-0. Solskjaer’s five alterations merely reaffirmed the size of the rebuild required in the summer. Marcos Rojo was still floundering against West Ham three years on and Matteo Darmian was considered as a substitute. The 17-year-old Mason Greenwood was introduced in an effort to claim victory.
The changes resulted in a predictably tepid start. Solskjaer gruffly sat still with his arms folded and once on the touchline became animated with Rojo for his indisciplined positioning and Diogo Dalot for not pushing up high enough. Mike Phelan and Michael Carrick took turns to address an aimlessness that Pogba was questioning in just the second minute. United barely improved.
Without the dependence of the counter-attack, United were again stumped as to how they should assert themselves at home again and the irony was West Ham threatened to beat them at their own game with Hernandez supplemented by the mercurial Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini.
West Ham were rightfully aggrieved not to take the lead. Anderson lashed Hernandez’s 13th minute knockdown past De Gea but the linesman raised his flag, only Diogo Dalot’s trailing foot had played Anderson onside. This time, United were grateful for the absence of VAR.
Seven minutes later, Robert Snodgrass clumsily barged into Juan Mata and Pogba converted, minus the stutter. Though Mata earned the penalty, United were indebted to Rojo for salvaging the attack by intercepting midway inside the visitors’ half. He regressed almost straight from the restart with an aimless hooked pass that caused Mike Phelan to pirouette in disgust. He would despair over Rojo again. Manuel Pellegrini was appalled as he remonstrated with the officials in the mouth of the Old Trafford tunnel.
If Solskjaer thought the goal would galvanise United he was mistaken and his touchline interventions had little influence on Jesse Lingard, still a shadow of the free-flowing forward before his hamstring injury more than two months ago. Anthony Martial was fortunate he was not within earshot of Solskjaer during his flaky first-half.
Solskjaer did not sufficiently address the complacency and Rojo struggled again. De Gea’s distribution was errant yet United had ample time to organise and prime themselves for Manuel Lanzini’s inswinger yet Rojo dozily left Anderson unattended and he cushioned the ball in, via De Gea’s gloves.
Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira were instructed to warm up yet Marcus Rashford emerged for the perennially substituted Mata in the 55th minute. Rashford enlivened United more than any of their starting forwards within four minutes by testing Lukasz Fabianski’s reflexes with a drilled drive. The 21-year-old squandered a better opportunity moments later with a wayward header inside the six-yard area.
Rashford did not come as close as the marauding Michail Antonio did in successive minutes. Firstly, his darting run was almost crowned in the 76th minute but he leathered the ball against the crossbar. Then De Gea’s outstretched hand clawed away Antonio’s bouncing header. Pogba, stirred by the jeopardy, responded by sending Martial through to be upended by the rash Ryan Fredericks.
Pogba stepped up.
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