Attempting to follow-up one cup win after another, Manchester United host Hull City in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final after their FA Cup win against Reading. United outlined their intent in winning the cup by fielding a strong team, with Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan returning to the starting lineup, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the match for the previous match, misses out due to an illness.
With United in stellar form, the first half shows flashbacks of a less satisfying spell this season, as United managed to play together well enough to seem dominant, yet not enough to take the lead. There were good chances in the first half, one in particular that Mkhitaryan should’ve done better with after good play from Juan Mata and Ander Herrera, but overall they weren’t convincing enough. United only opened the scoring in the second half, after Mkhitaryan headed back an Antonio Valencia cross for Mata to finish from close range, and then substitute Marouane Fellaini doubled the scoreline with a looping header from a Matteo Darmian cross late in the game.
Mata’s opener capped off what was an overall impressive display. When United struggled to create good enough chances it was important for them to keep possession while maintaining the pressure, and Mata was instrumental in achieving that. His close control and technique was also on full display. It’s right that he was to be the first United goalscorer, as he was the best of United’s attacking player.
In midfield, Paul Pogba also performed well. He had some shaky little moments in the first half, misplacing some more ambitious passes, but they were tiny compared to the rest of his performance. His passing range was superb, picking out through balls, and switching play with sweeping long passes effortlessly. He set up a great chance for Wayne Rooney with a long-range through ball, and nearly got on the scoresheet himself, striking the post from a free kick.
And lastly, United’s symbol of consistency this season, Antonio Valencia. He wasn’t kept too busy in defence but stepped up whenever called for. It was in attack where he was most impressive, repeatedly causing trouble with his direct running and crossing. His cross led to Mata’s opener, and a great left-footed cross in the first half could’ve ended up creating a good chance if not for some miscommunication between Pogba and Mkhitaryan.
While the other two performed very well in their own right, Mata is the one who deserves to be Man of the Match the most. Without him and his opening goal United might not have been able to get going the way they did, and if not for him they would definitely have struggled to create even more.