This weekend’s biggest Premier League story ahead of this match may have been the home defeat of champions Manchester City at the hands of Crystal Palace and Liverpool’s four-point lead at the top, but as far as these teams are concerned, it was certainly Manchester United sacking manager Jose Mourinho and appointing their former star Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his place for the rest of the season. The Norwegian has connections with Cardiff too, having spent nine months in their dugout at the end of which his fate was the same as Mourinho’s now.
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock was without left-back Joe Bennet who had a hip problem, and he had mentioned a few players had minor knocks but he wouldn’t reveal their names.
Neil Etheridge stood between the posts. The centre-back duo of Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba was ahead of him, with Bruno Ecuele and Gregory Cunningham on either side. Harry Arter and Aaron Gunnarson sat as the two deep midfielders. In attack, striker Callum Paterson had the trio of Victor Camarasa, Junior Hoilett and Josh Murphy in support.
Solskjaer couldn’t count on Romelu Lukaku who was on a compassionate leave, while Alexis Sanchez hadn’t recovered from a hamstring issue. Chris Smalling got injured in the warm-up against Liverpool a week earlier.
David De Gea was in goal. Ashley Young and Luke Shaw flanked Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof at the back. Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera played as a double pivot with Paul Pogba ahead of them. Marcus Rashford was upfront, supported by Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.
The First Half
Solskjear’s new job got off to a perfect start as his team took the lead in the third minute. Pogba was fouled some 25 yards out and Rashford’s cunning free-kick left Etheridge rooted to the spot before hitting the net.
Cardiff had a very similar chance after seven minutes, but Murphy’s shot wasn’t nearly as accurate as Rashford’s.
There had to be some truth in the stories about Mourinho and the situation in his dressing room, purely because this was a different Manchester United team altogether from the one that kept disappointing under the Portuguese. Every player did what he was supposed to do, and the visitors kept the proceedings under control from the start. Cardiff’s game was reduced to long balls and attempts at forcing set-pieces as high as possible, but there wasn’t any consolation for them in that.
United looked particularly strong on the left side, where both Shaw and Martial looked very sharp. The Frenchman’s pace and quick dribbling frequently gave Ecuele nightmares, and his pullbacks gave the Cardiff centre-backs a lot to do. With just over 20 minutes gone, Rashford could have scored his second on the night as Martial employed him some 10 yards from the goal, but a number of blue shirts got infront of him and stifled his shot.
The home team were having trouble getting over the halfway line, and when they did, they looked hopeful rather than organized. United weren’t creating great chances either, but they had the lead; they could afford to wait.
Their patience paid off in the 29th minute as a clever pass by Pogba found Herrera alone 25 yards out, and the Spaniard managed to find the top corner with the help of a tiny deflection and beat Etheridge.
United held everything under control in the following period, but thunder struck from a clear sky in the 37th minute as Rashford was judged to have handled the ball inside his own box.
Camarasa made no mistake from the spot.
It was only a brief respite, however. Just three minutes later, Martial charged forward and combined brilliantly with Pogba and Lingard to set himself up for a one-on-one with Etheridge, and kept cool as he slotted past the ‘keeper.
It was an excellent 45 minutes from the visitors. Lingard was perhaps the only player in a red shirt that could have done better in several situations, but it was a very fluid game by Solskjaer’s men. Warnock was worried.
The Second Half
Nothing really changed after the break. The visitors were still the dominant team, playing quickly and keeping their game simple. Players formed triangles in all areas of the pitch and played one-touch passes whenever possible, thus forcing their opponents to run a lot more and cutting through them with relative ease.
In the 52nd minute Pogba’s clever pass released the run of Rashford inside the box, but Etheridge was alert enough to thwart him with the help of his defenders. Three minutes later, Lingard skipped past Bamba and entered the box. The Cardiff centre-back caught up with him and took him down from behind, leaving referee Michael Oliver with no alternative but to point to the spot again.
Lingard took the penalty himself, sending Etheridge one way and the ball the other, and completely redeemed himself for a bleak first half.
The thing is, Cardiff were in real trouble with United still tightening the screw and driving forward, and Warnock tried to change something by withdrawing Arter and sending striker Kenneth Zohore on.
Three minutes later, Lindelof surprised the home side by taking the ball far up the pitch, getting into an attacking midfield position and threading a nice pass for Rashford to chase, but the England international just missed the target from a tight angle. Murphy then hit the target from the edge of the box at the other end, but De Gea was alert.
Cardiff had another opportunity in the 69th minute as Pogba took out Hoilett and gave them a free-kick in a potentially dangerous position. Camarasa swung in a cross and Paterson’s header went over the bar. Pogba then responded with a powerful curling shot straight under the bar at the other end, but Etheridge saved it.
With 17 minutes to go, Warnock took out Hoilett and sent on Kadeem Harris, just before Bamba failed to hit the target with a header from six yards.
Cardiff’s determination was beginning to make its mark on the game, and they were getting near and into United’s box with increased frequency. Zohore troubled the visitors a lot in the 77th minute as he took advantage of a long pass to escape Lindelof and enter the box, but he went a bit too wide and failed to trouble De Gea from a tight angle.
Two minutes later, Solskjaer decided it was time to take the tempo down and he sent on Fred to replace Rashford. Warnock’s last substitution of the game was Joe Rolls for Gunnarson in the 83rd minute.
With four minutes remaining, Solskjaer took out Martial and Matić and gave Marouane Fellaini and Andreas Pereira a run-out.
Towards the end, Cardiff players were notably losing belief. They’d come to the terms with the fact that the game was lost, and their attacks became less dangerous by the minute, while United still kept their flair. The visitors exploded once more in the last minute and Pogba set Lingard up for a clear run at Etheridge. Lingard went around the ‘keeper and put the ball into the empty net. It was the first time Manchester United scored five goals in a Premier League game in five years – since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Everything about this game proved the United decision to part ways with Jose Mourinho to have been the right one. The players looked on a different level to what they were showing previously this season, both individually and in terms of team play. It was like their hands and legs were finally untied, and whether it was the work of Solskjaer or the mere fact they were rid of Mourinho, they played a fantastic game.
However, it will not be easy to climb anywhere near the top of the table for them this season. They still sit in sixth place after 18 rounds, eight points off Chelsea in fourth, and a huge 19 behind arch-rivals Liverpool on top. It’s a steep hill to climb, but if performances like this one become the standard, it’s certainly climbable.
As for Cardiff, Warnock shouldn’t be too hard on himself or his players. It was a classic Manchester United they faced in this game, and that means a really top team which would’ve been too much for most of the Premier League; let alone a newly promoted side. They remain two points above the relegation zone, and while they are on the top of their own figurative hill at the moment, they must work hard for the rest of the season in order not to tumble down its sides.
CARDIFF CITY: Etheridge 6, Morrison 6, Bamba 7, Ecuele 6, Cunningham 7, Arter 6.5 (61′ Zohore 6.5), Gunnarson 7 (83′ Rolls N/A), Camarasa 6.5, Hoilett 5 (73′ Harris 5), Murphy 6, Paterson 6.5.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea 7, Lindelof 7.5, Jones 6.5, Young 7, Shaw 7.5, Matić 7.5 (86′ Fellaini N/A), Herrera 7.5, Pogba 8, Lingard 7.5, Martial 8.5 (86′ Pereira N/A), Rashford 7.5 (79′ Fred N/A).
GOALS: Rashford 3′, Herrera 29′, Camarasa (P) 38′, Martial 41′, Lingard (P) 47′, 90′.
YELLOW CARDS: Shaw 35′, Gunnarson 58′, Cunningham 78′.
REFEREE: Michael Oliver.
DATE & VENUE: December 22, 2018, Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff.
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