Manchester United’s Paul Pogba returns in style to cut down Newcastle

Daniel Taylor at Old Trafford on 18 November 2017

Once again, Paul Pogba is doing his snake-hips shuffle beneath the Stretford End and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – straight-backed, chest puffed out, knee fixed – can be seen soaking up the crowd’s acclaim. It still might not be enough when it comes to the task of catching, and overhauling, Manchester City at the top of the Premier League – but it must still feel reassuring for Manchester United’s supporters to see these two wearing the team’s colours again.

For Ibrahimovic, it was his first appearance since his cruciate ligaments were ruptured in April and it was a tremendous cheer when he came on in the 77th minute. All the goals had gone in by that stage but, Zlatan being Zlatan, one imagines he is certain he can still have a considerable influence on this season’s title race. He will be outraged, undoubtedly, that an acrobatic volley was saved by the Newcastle goalkeeper, Rob Elliot, to deny him a comeback goal in the final moments.

No matter. This was still a satisfying evening for José Mourinho in many different ways. Pogba was excellent, capping his return from two months out with the team’s third goal, and Romelu Lukaku should also feel better after ending his barren run. Lukaku lashed in his goal in the manner of someone who had grown weary of being reminded he had not scored for his club since 30 September.

It was the seventh occasion this season Mourinho’s side have scored four times, with Anthony Martial and Chris Smalling also on target, but perhaps the most impressive part was what it said about the team’s resilience bearing in mind Newcastle had opened the scoring, via Dwight Gayle, and played superbly in the opening half an hour.

It was the first league goal scored by an opponent at Old Trafford this season and it took a while for Mourinho’s players to shake their heads clear. Newcastle could certainly feel aggrieved to be losing at half-time and will think back to the chance Jacob Murphy could not convert six minutes after Gayle’s precise strike. Newcastle looked impressive for long spells but that missed chance, with the opportunity to go 2-0 ahead, was crucial bearing in mind the way the complexion of the game changed before half-time.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic unleashes a bicycle kick which was saved by Rob Elliot.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic unleashes a bicycle kick which was saved by Rob Elliot. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

The home team also had the taller players and there was always the danger Newcastle might come up short in defence, particularly with Jamaal Lascelles among their list of absentees. Martial was the first to take advantage, outjumping DeAndre Yedlin to head in Pogba’s cross for the equaliser and when the next goal arrived in first-half stoppage time it was another back-post header, albeit with the ball coming in from the opposite side. Smalling had drifted free and was inside the six-yard area when Ashley Young picked him out to apply the decisive touch.

Even then, there was still time for Isaac Hayden to run clear before half-time only to be kept out by David de Gea’s save. Ultimately, though, Mourinho was not exaggerating with his assessment of the next 45 minutes. “The second half was ours,” he said. And Pogba’s performance? “Top,” the United manager added, matter-of-factly.

It did not always click and Newcastle kept on attacking, making it another difficult occasion for Victor Lindelof, deputising for the injured Phil Jones. Lindelof has found it tough since his £30m move from Benfica and Gayle’s 14th-minute goal was another ordeal for the Sweden international. Yedlin, Newcastle’s attacking right-back, created the opening with a surging run and Lindelof’s slip left Gayle on his own. The striker’s finish was impeccable, aimed to De Gea’s right and going in off the upright.

Newcastle were terrific in the opening exchanges and Mourinho even felt moved to praise Rafael Benítez, one of his old enemies, for the away team’s tactics. Not many teams are brave enough to come here with two strikers but perhaps Benítez sensed the home defence, also missing Eric Bailly, might be more vulnerable than usual. If so, he was absolutely correct.

Lukaku also looked a little hesitant early on, as might be expected for someone who had failed to score in the previous seven games. That, however, felt like a deception by the end. His goal was a demonstration of raw power, smashing his shot into the roof of the net after a bulldozing run, a one-two with Juan Mata and a wishy-washy challenge from Florian Lejeune, and the striker was also prominently involved when Pogba made it 3-1 nine minutes into the second half.

Lukaku’s cross was expertly delivered and it was a lovely cushioned header from Marcus Rashford to direct the ball across the six-yard area, leaving Pogba with a tap-in. Pogba danced for the crowd and the final word went to Ibrahimovic. Had he ever doubted, at the age of 36, that he would recover? “Never,” he said. “Because lions don’t recover like humans.”

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