Manchester United survive late Paul Pogba antics-induced scare to win over Everton

In front of the watching Eric Cantona, Manchester United scored the kind of winning goal that would have had their idol puffing out his chest and turning up his collar to accept the adulation.

It was Cantona-eque as another Frenchman, Anthony Martial, curled a superb first-time shot around Seamus Coleman to unsight goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and defeat Everton.

But despite this possibly being United’s best attacking performance of the season, it remained far from the imperious swagger that Cantona brought to the Theatre of Dreams.

Cantona was at the match as he undertakes his own theatrics, a tour with his “Audience with…” series which includes two shows at the Lowry Theatre, a short walk from the stadium he graced. He has also had his say again on the state of United under their manager, Jose Mourinho, telling a supporters’ event last that “it’s not the right man for the right woman”.

That sense of unease prevails and it felt wholly in keeping that despite taking a two-goal lead, despite looking like scoring more, the final whistle was met with Martial slumping to his knees and staring at the turf in contemplation. A sense of relief swirled around.
Mourinho had berated Martial seconds before the end, tearing out of his dugout to implore him to track back, while there were cryptic comments from the manager afterwards suggesting the forward – like other young players – has been held back in the past by the “entourage” that surrounds him.

It must also be remembered that Mourinho wanted United to sell Martial last summer having given up on the 22-year-old. The club resisted the demand, fretting that Martial might come back to haunt them in the way Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah were allowed to leave Chelsea when Mourinho was manager. And so it goes on.

Maybe Mourinho is right. Maybe tough love continues to be the correct approach, but there is that nagging sense that if only he continues to allow his team to play to their strengths – the attacking power at his disposal is undoubtedly far greater than the defensive assets – then it might, just, work. Or at least be better.

He took one of those forwards out, with Romelu Lukaku understandably dropped. The £75 million striker can have no complaints, even if he has also had very little service up front, and when he did come on against his former club, he did not look threatening. The Belgian had one chance but headed it weakly wide – to the jeers of the travelling Evertonians – and his search for a goal goes on.

They left with a sense of grievance, angry at the award of the first-half penalty from which United eventually took the lead, with manager Marco Silva joining his players in insisting it should not have been given by referee Jon Moss.

It was a debatable issue, dividing opinion, with Silva insisting Martial had “dived”. Idrissa Gueye challenged him in the penalty area, with Martial going over the midfielder’s outstretched leg. However, it transpired that Gueye had got the ball first – but did he then still impede Martial? Or did Martial look for the contact and go down, theatrically, afterwards?

Everton were incensed, with Paul Pogba stepping up to take the penalty – taking an extraordinary 28 short steps before striking the ball poorly, with Pickford diving to his right to punch it out. Unfortunately for him the rebound fell to Pogba, who stroked it into the net.

United deserved their half-time advantage and added to it with Martial’s brilliant strike after Kurt Zouma’s clearance fell to Pogba, who thought about shooting before sending the ball to his left. Martial met it to arc a shot from the edge of the area inside Pickford’s left-hand post. Cantona would have approved but then, familiar failings beset United.

Everton, on a run of three wins going into this fixture, should have pulled a goal back when Richarlison slipped a pass through to his fellow Brazilian Bernard, who rounded goalkeeper David de Gea – only to shoot into the side-netting as Victor Lindelof scrambled back to cover. In the centre, Theo Walcott was unmarked and angry, although it was not his best game, either, as he had lost possession ahead of both of United’s goals.

The home side should have finished it off but Pickford superbly denied both Pogba and Marcus Rashford, who was playing through the middle instead of Lukaku, before Everton did strike.

As well as Pogba had played until this point, he was badly at fault. There had been warning signs with some unnecessary showboating before Pogba tried to chip the ball forward close to his own goal, only for it to be intercepted.

Everton countered quickly, with Richarlison sent running into the area. It would have had to have been some strike to beat De Gea but, ridiculously, Chris Smalling lunged in and took him out. Gylfi Sigurdsson sent the clearest of penalties high into the net to set up a nervy final few minutes.

In fairness, it should have been United who scored again, though, with Zouma dispossessed as he dallied in injury time and Martial released on goal. He had time and space but went too close to Pickford before shooting, with the goalkeeper diverting his half-hearted effort away for a corner.

Maybe that is why Martial slumped to his knees at the end of what was another curious game for United, even if it ended in a precious win.

“It’s almost impossible for us to keep a clean sheet even with a phenomenal goalkeeper and to score is really difficult,” Mourinho later said. It summed it up. There is certainly no Cantona confidence.

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