For the first time since September, Manchester United find themselves in the Champions League places. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s group stages have been significantly boosted over the past week or so – by Manchester City’s two-year ban, more than anything else – but back-to-back league victories mean United now occupy that newly coveted fifth-place spot.
A Bruno Fernandes penalty and spectacular finishes by Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood proved enough for Solskjaer’s side to beat relegation-threatened Watford comfortably. This was a satisfying win and Fernandes’s performance will have especially pleased Solskjaer. His influential, all-action display felt like the €55m signing truly announcing himself to Old Trafford.
Watford will be disappointed. Nigel Pearson’s visitors had chances, mainly in the first-half through Abdoulaye Doucoure, and Troy Deeney saw a potential equaliser correctly chalked off. At least they remain just one point off safety, even after this defeat. Yet having enjoyed a ‘new manager bounce’ under Pearson, they are now winless in five games and losing momentum in their bid to avoid dropping into the second tier.
That must be taken into account when assessing United’s performance. But Solskjaer has faced plenty of criticism for failing to beat opponents in the lower reaches of the league table this season – a month has passed since that dismal home defeat to Burnley – so it is only right that he and his players are praised when they take all three points in an effective manner.
That being said, the opening exchanges were low on quality and United’s defence was particularly suspect. Harry Maguire and Nemanja Matic at one stage ran into each other, allowing Deeney to waltz through one-on-one with David de Gea. A last-ditch recovery tackle by Luke Shaw – excellent at left-back all afternoon, after also impressing in Bruges on Thursday night – spared United’s blushes.
Fernandes cut a frustrated figure for much of the first half and eventually decided to take matters into his own hands. Several surging runs through midfield posed questions of Watford’s defence. The best of them resulted in Fernandes bursting clear into Watford’s 18-yard box, tripping over goalkeeper Ben Foster’s outstretched hand and intelligently winning a penalty.
Around a quarter of Fernandes’s goals in Portugal were penalties and, given United’s inconsistency from the spot this season and the absence of first-choice taker Marcus Rashford, it was no surprise to see him step up. He scored United’s league-high 14th penalty of the season, sending Foster the wrong way with a skip before striking the ball. It was United’s first league goal at Old Trafford in 235 minutes.
Watford did not deserve to be behind and believed they had restored parity at the start of the second half when corner deflected off Craig Dawson, bounced against the post and into the path of Deeney, who converted from close range. VAR, however, noticed the ball had hit Dawson’s arm. The away end protested but could have no genuine complaints. And five minutes later, the game was settled as a contest by a moment of brilliance from Martial.
It began as a genuinely fluent attacking move by United, with Shaw and Daniel James exchanging passes on the left and Fernandes then slotting a ball in behind the Watford defence. Martial’s first attempt was saved by the onrushing Foster, but the goalkeeper stayed too far off his line. Martial was allowed to recover possession, stand Foster and his defenders up with a spot of neat footwork and then lift a finish over the ‘keeper’s shoulder.
If that was a graceful and delicate goal, United’s third was emphatic. Greenwood won possession in his own half and drove upfield. After briefly exchanging possession with Fernandes, he moved the ball onto his left foot and converted with power into the top corner. The only disappointment was that Odion Ighalo, a late substitute, did not score against his old club after rounding Foster and drilling into the side netting.
Not since beating Leicester City back in September have United found themselves among the Champions League spots. Whether fifth place will be enough depends on the success of City’s appeal, of course, and there are plenty of other teams eying up this backdoor route into Europe’s premier club competition. United, though, are now only three points off fourth-place Chelsea and only looking upwards.
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