Opinion: Injuries, uneven performances kill Old Trafford feel-good factor

United's unimpressive 2-0 victory over Benfica on Tuesday night all but booked their place in the last-16 of the UEFA Champions League but left much to be desired.

Opinion: Injuries, uneven performances kill Old Trafford feel-good factor
Daley Blind seals United's victory with a late penalty. (Photo credit: Matthew Ashton/AMA)

On Tuesday evening, an own goal from Benfica goalkeeper Mile Svilar gifted Manchester United a 1-0 victory, their fourth in a row in the UEFA Champions League.

United have now won three matches in a row in all competitions, moving on to the Carabo Cup quarter-finals, defeating Tottenham Hotspur and all but securing Champions League qualification in the space of a week. 

The Red Devils now sit second in the table in the Premier League, five points behind Manchester City, who have dropped just two points all season.

In all competitions, United's only loss came at the hands of Huddersfield Town. They have the second-best goal differential in the Premier League, the best defensive record, and haven't surrendered a goal at home in league action.

So, why the negativity?

Despite all that, confidence does not seem to be soaring at Old Trafford. Although United managed to beat Tottenham and Benfica, both performances were uneven.

While the result did not, each performance left something to be desired. United never looked like scoring in the first half against Tottenham, and while they managed to create opportunities in the second period, the eventual goal came from a simple ball over the top and a defensive mistake.

The breakthrough against Benfica was even less deserved; a well-struck shot from Nemanja Matic rebounded off the post, hit the back of Svilar, and rolled over the line. Until that point, Benfica had been by far the better side and should feel incredibly unlucky to have gone behind. Benfica really deserved to lead at that point in the game, and a shocking defensive mistake from Eric Bailly nearly gifted them an equaliser midway through the second half before Daley Blind's penalty sealed the result late on. 

Jose Mourinho has always been a manager that believes the ends justified the means. As he correctly points out, style points are never rewarded, and a gritty 1-0 win counts the same in any table as a beautiful 6-0 victory, bar for goal difference. Yet, teams cannot win trophies by grinding out ugly win after ugly win. Eventually, poor performances catch up with any team, and they drop points that, on paper, shouldn't be dropped. The most obvious example of that so far this season is United's loss at Huddersfield, their first loss to the Terriers in 65 years.

Over the course of a season, a result like that never happens just once. For a team like United, who play so many games across all competitions, they are bound to happen more often. They won't earn two penalties and have an own goal go their way like they did against Benfica the next time they play poorly. If United truly want to challenge City, who look one of the best teams in Europe, for the title, they have to improve.

Injuries, poor form deepen discontent

Part of the reason United have played so poorly of late is their bad luck with injuries. Paul Pogba, who got off to a brilliant start this season, has not played since mid-September because of a hamstring problem.

The issue in central midfield worsened when Marouane Fellaini, another player hitting some of his best form in a red shirt, went down injured soon after Pogba. Club captain Michael Carrick has only managed one appearance all year. United's central midfield options have been reduced to the point that Scott McTominay started against Benfica, and just what the center of the park will look like against Chelsea this weekend is still unknown. 

Jesse Lingard was substituted at half-time against Benfica after picking up a knock, and both Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been struggling for form of late. Lukaku couldn't score when put through 1v1 with Svilar on Tuesday night, taking his run of games without a goal to six while Mkhitaryan was the man who came on for Lingard on Tuesday, but once again flattered to deceive.

Chelsea match offers chance to shift narrative

So much of how a football team gets covered is driven by their last time on the field. What happened yesterday, our most recent impression of a team drives how we feel about them at any moment in time. While United played poorly on Tuesday, that doesn't change the fact they won again. It doesn't change the fact that they are nearly through to the last-16 of the Champions League, sit second in the table and are in the Quarterfinals of the League Cup.

On Sunday, when the Reds play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, they have an opportunity to shift the conversation once again. Chelsea enter the match on the back of a 3-0 thrashing at Roma, and pressure continues to build on Antonio Conte. The opportunity for Mourinho and Matic to return to the Bridge and deepen Conte's misery has to be deeply appealing. While Mourinho would no doubt enjoy winning at the Bridge, it would also change the way people are talking about United. 

It would be the second week on the bounce they had defeated a fellow title rival and would leave them seven points ahead of Chelsea. On top of that, it would be the last impression left by Mourinho's side heading into an international break. With nothing but wins over Tottenham and Chelsea to talk about for two weeks, the narrative surrounding the team would look completely different come mid-November while key players continue to get healthier. For United, it's all there to play for on Sunday.