In the way only football can, this contest started in breath-taking Boys’ Own fashion. Paul Pogba has had his issues with José Mourinho yet just 75 seconds into a season advertised as a struggle by Manchester United’s manager his prize midfielder rifled home a priceless lead.
It came from the penalty spot and sent the home faithful into ecstasy. It arrived after Mourinho handed Pogba the armband, and was priceless PR for a pair who can endure a troubled relationship.
Next came a vignette 23 minutes in. Pogba was dispossessed by Kelechi Iheanacho. Yet instead of remaining on the floor, up sprung a Frenchman who had returned to training only on Monday after winning the World Cup to win the ball back from the Nigerian.
It drew applause from the manager and the urge for him and team to fare well was summed up by Mourinho being serenaded as the interval neared despite United being less convincing as the half aged.
This had all been offered up after the great Mourinho summer moan-athon rolled into Old Trafford for this Premier League curtain-raiser.
Despite his perma-disgruntlement there was tangible optimism from United fans which increased as the match wore on and United continued to lead. After a pre-season scrutinising the unhappy Portuguese’s every utterance here was a Friday night under lights to gauge how his side might fare in the hurly-burly of a domestic campaign.
To listen to Mourinho on the US tour was to hear a man stuck in a tiresome loop of high dudgeon.
Last night’s opponents and Brighton & Hove Albion next Sunday had been flagged by him in Los Angeles and elsewhere as quasi-treacherous foes who could prevent his side getting off to the flyer all successful terms usually require.
This was due to a complaint regarding the 12 senior players on post-World Cup breaks who would start preparation late, and a transfer window that closed with Fred as the 55-year-old’s only frontline acquisition.
The Brazilian was Exhibit A . Named in the XI by Mourinho, a duff display would add to his manager’s gloom and an accomplished one offer hope.
Fred’s early contributions suggested the latter. At first he was on the pace of this bruising competition though later the 25-year-old would be caught out and appear clumsy.
The corollary of Mourinho’s perceived negatives was that opportunity knocked for others. Andreas Pereira was given a first league start in Nemanja Matic’s midfield berth, Luke Shaw a chance to oust Ashley Young at left-back, and Matteo Darmian started at right-back in Antonio Valencia’s stead.