Manchester United and Anderlecht meet again at Old Trafford on Thursday with their UEFA Europa League quarter-final hanging in the balance.
Leander Dendoncker crashed in a late header last Thursday to secure a 1-1 home draw for the Belgian side, and they will now hope to pull off a shock result that United will bid to avert at all costs. UEFA.com analyses three aspects of the return fixture that could tip the scales one way or the other.
The Rashford factor
Still just 19, Marcus Rashford is no longer an unknown quantity, but Anderlecht were unable to find the formula to solve a puzzling equation: how to stop the United youngster? Rashford was United’s most coherent threat in what was otherwise a stuttering performance from the Premier League team in their opponent’s final third.
Out wide, his directness and uncanny ability to beat his man was a permanent feature of the first half. His cross provided Zlatan Ibrahimović with a first-half chance that was brilliantly saved by Martínez Ruben, and it was also a Rashford shot, parried by Ruben, that led to Henrikh Mkhitaryan snaffling up United’s goal.
On a night when José Mourinho criticised his forwards’ ineffectiveness, his private words to Rashford surely cannot have been quite so harsh. After all, the England international appeared the one player capable of creating a state of alarm for the hosts. Can Anderlecht can smother him in the second leg? Will United work out the best means of exploiting his talents? The answers to those questions could decide a semi-final berth.
Anderlecht’s wide men
The start of either half belonged to Anderlecht, urged into a suffocating pressing of United by their raucously passionate fans and – no doubt – some choice advice from their coach. “Bravo to my players for annoying Monsieur Mourinho,” said Anderlecht boss René Weiler in his post-match press conference, and he was not only referring to Dendoncker’s 86th-minute leveller.
Especially when they got the ball out wide, notably to Frank Acheampong on the left, Anderlecht gave Mourinho cause to be irritated. Had leading scorer Łukasz Teodorczyk been in the penalty box rather than consigned to the bench by a shoulder injury, one Acheampong cross in particular might have been gleefully accepted.
Massimo Bruno miskicked when presented with the first opportunity of the game, created by another cross from the left, while Ivan Obradović’s centre from the same flank led to Dendoncker nodding in. Weiler’s men need to learn from that and take any chances they create at Old Trafford.
Beware the Zlatan backlash
The United No9’s previous appearance at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium will live for considerably longer in the memory than last week’s. The Anderlecht supporters feared that Ibrahimović would repeat the spectacular four-goal haul he netted against their side in the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League group stage.
Instead, they revelled in the former Swedish international’s inability to peel off the formidable centre-back pairing of Bram Nuytinck and Serigne Mbodji, who stuck to their task with zeal.
While Mourinho laid into his forwards for playing as if they were “in a friendly”, the same could not be said of the rough-and-tumble Anderlecht duo, who tag-teamed Ibrahimović into submission. But Anderlecht beware: round two will surely see the United man attempting to bounce off the ropes.