Belfast Telegraph

Assured Henrikh Mkhitaryan answers critics by firing Manchester United to victory

Man United 1 Tottenham 0

By Ian Herbert

It seemed to be a premonition that the match programme publishers dared make Henrikh Mkhitaryan their cover story, diplomatically describing in an interview with him the requirement to "adapt" which saw the Armenian start only two Premier League games before this.

If truth be told, he would say his manager has simply failed to know the quality in front of his eyes all along but, regardless of that, he let the football do his talking.

The 27-year-old marked the afternoon with his first Old Trafford goal, three days after scoring his first Manchester United goal, though was then stretchered from the field after he fell awkwardly, twisting his left ankle badly after a challenge from Danny Rose. Manager Jose Mourinho suggested that the player will only miss this week's trips to Crystal Palace and West Bromwich, and conceivably be available for Sunderland's visit here on Boxing Day.

He has reason to hope so because the goal crowned a performance in which he provided the unexpected and dangerous component in Mourinho's side. United have recorded consecutive wins for the first time since last September and though scruffy and a less than emphatic demonstration of their muscle, there was evidence the pieces of the six-man attacking force are beginning to fit.

Mourinho is perhaps persuaded at last of the poise and vision Michael Carrick has to bring, with a touch which was impressive again, while Paul Pogba's threat from the berth behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rattling the bar and bringing a fine save from Hugo Lloris around the hour mark, make the way ahead look increasingly foggy for the unused captain, Wayne Rooney. Ander Herrera, impressive again, looks like future captain material. The more unexpected bonus is what Phil Jones has delivered in central defence since his return from nearly a year injured and without football.

It is the goal which will live longest in the memory. Mkhitaryan's finish was memorable for its power and assuredness, as the right-sided midfielder required one touch on the ball that Herrera traced into his path, before thrashing it high into the rook of Hugo Lloris' net.

A hustle created the opportunity. The threatening presence of Pogba had led Harry Kane to spill possession directly to Herrera - encapsulating the frailty and lack of precision at times which has seen Spurs, 10 points off top spot now, struggling to reach last season's level.

Kane, Delli Ali and Victor Wanyama could not make an impression on the game, as so often during a disappointing autumn which has seen them lose to Chelsea and draw with Arsenal. The defence was secure and Hugo Lloris outstanding though Christian Eriksen was the only forward with any degree of menace. So much for Spurs being the fastest and fittest in the Premier League. Their only threat was with the dead ball: Eriksen (twice) and Son Heung-min both forced David de Gea into sharp saves

The chances Spurs were presented with were a product of that capacity United have to commit defensive suicide. A 15-yard run on a free kick from Wanyama after 55 minutes went entirely undetected, with Matteo Darmian the culprit, but the Dutchman conspired to head the ball down into the turf with the goal at his mercy. Alli was equally blunt when Antonio Valencia's back pass sent him through to goal.

On this error-strewn landscape, Mkhiitaryan was a shining light. He caused danger all over the front line on the first half, frequently raced high into the right hand channel. His advance positions provide an effective link-up with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he picks the pass behind the defensive line, too - measuring one for Ibrahimovic when the game was only two minutes old from which the Swede provided an outstanding chance for Paul Pogba. The Frenchman's left-footed shot with the instep was easy for Lloris to palm away.

Briefly at the death, there was the spectre of another of those late equalisers which have haunted United, when Danny Rose made a late run into the box. Jones withdrew from a challenge just in time to prevent the defender drawing a foul and penalty. But Tottenham generally struggled to provide the late vim which has made United so vulnerable late on.

It was the Portuguese's team who threatened with those Pogba efforts - a free kick bent against the bar with Lloris stranded and a give-and-go with Herrera which took him into shooting distance, forcing the goalkeeper to leap left and save.

Mkhiitaryan was asked in the match programme interview if he feared for the lack of a winter break. "No," he said. "It's always better to play every three or four days and to be awake and alive." He's no intention of heading back to the shadows now.

Man Utd: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick, Herrera (Fellaini, 90 mins), Mkhitaryan (Bailly, 85 mins), Pogba, Martial (Rashford, 71 mins), Ibrahimovic. Unused subs: Romero, Blind, Mata, Rooney.

Tottenham: Lloris, Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Wanyama, Dembele (Winks, 67 mins), Eriksen (Nkoudou, 83 mins), Alli, Son (Sissoko, 57 mins), Kane. Unused subs: Vorm, Wimmer, Davies, Dier.

Referee: Robert Madley

Man of the match: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Match rating: 6/10

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