If every Manchester United win from hereon in is to be seen as power to Jose Mourinho’s elbow and every setback considered proof that Paul Pogba’s concerns are well-placed, then it was first blood to the Frenchman on Tuesday night as United went crashing out of the Carabao Cup at home to Championship Derby County.
The 8-7 penalty reverse after a 2-2 draw in bizarre circumstances after Sergio Romero was sent off midway through the second half seemed entirely fitting on a day when the deteriorating relationship between the manager and his most expensive signing hit a new low.
Before the match it felt almost as though the game itself was secondary given the pre-game revelation that Mourinho had told Pogba he will never captain the club again following the midfielder’s claim that United ought to be a far more attacking outfit in home games than they were in Saturday’s Premier League draw with Wolves.
“I think teams are scared when they see Man United attacking and attacking,” said the midfielder. “When we play like this it’s easier for us.”
And so it was that United should end the regulation time of their cup clash against Frank Lampard’s impressive side with the Stretford End appealing for their team to “Attack, attack, attack” in much the same way that Pogba had wanted to see more.
United started like a team determined to put the off-field issues behind them, with Anthony Martial excelling on the left and Juan Mata putting them into a third-minute lead after one of the wide man’s dangerous runs.
But it didn’t take too long for things to unravel, and as soon as the Rams began to put their foot on the ball United didn’t seem to know how to deal with the threat posed by the likes of Mason Mount and Harry Wilson.
It was Mount’s ball that opened United up soon after the opener and forced Romero into a smart save from Mason Bennett, but Derby would have to wait until the hour mark before getting the equaliser they deserved.
After Ashley Young’s foul on David Nugent, Wilson stepped up to deliver a wonderful left-foot free-kick which caught Romero completely flat-footed. It would get worse for the Argentine shortly after too, as Wilson chased onto the ball and attempted to flick it beyond the goalkeeper, prompting an instinctive save a full yard or two outside his area.
The red card which inevitably followed brought Lee Grant into action for the first time as a United player and with five minutes to play he was picking the ball out of his net as Jack Marriott smartly followed in Mount’s initial shot to turn home what appeared likely to be a winner.
But Mourinho was bailed out by Marouane Fellaini’s 95th-minute equaliser from Diogo Dalot’s exemplary right-wing cross and United were given the lifeline of penalty kicks.
There was to be no ultimate reprieve though, with 15 penalties being taken and scored before Phil Jones stepped up and side-footed a tame effort which Scott Carson was able to get down to and end a turbulent day in the life of Manchester United with a humiliating cup exit.
Ed Woodward had taken the opportunity to back Mourinho during the end-of-year earnings call with shareholders earlier in the day. But while the latest twist in the manager’s relationship with Pogba was one thing, another dreadful performance at Old Trafford and a cup giant-killing is only going to heap more pressure on the Portuguese’s shoulders.
What next in this soap opera of a Manchester United season?