United have 'steep mountain to climb'

Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez beating Man United goalkeeper David de Gea to score his sixth goal in 19 starts in all competitions this season during the first leg of their League Cup semi-final clash on Tuesday. City won 3-1. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez beating Man United goalkeeper David de Gea to score his sixth goal in 19 starts in all competitions this season during the first leg of their League Cup semi-final clash on Tuesday. City won 3-1. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Solskjaer rues his team's woeful first-half display; Guardiola refuses to rule rivals out

LONDON • The worst display of the season. This was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's damning assessment of Manchester United's first-half performance in their 3-1 first-leg defeat of the League Cup semi-finals.

Despite starting without a recognised striker, holders Manchester City outclassed their hosts, scoring all three goals in a 21-minute first-half blitz on Tuesday.

The performance led the Norwegian to question his squad's mental attitude, saying the players needed to learn to spur themselves on when things went against them.

"From their goal until half-time is the worst we've played," he said. "We couldn't cope. We let them play, our heads dropped, we made decisions we shouldn't.

"It's natural your head goes down when you feel you're not performing, but we've got to get out of it quicker. It can't be me coming in at half-time, that's the learning this team (must do).

"We've got a young team. I've said it a few times but it's not going to change. We're learning and these experiences must stick."

Nemanja Matic came in for Jesse Lingard at the break to shore up the midfield and they managed to get a foothold in the match with a Marcus Rashford goal, keeping the tie alive ahead of the Jan 29 return leg.

Solskjaer said: "The second half was a good response but it's a steep mountain to climb.

"It gives me something to believe in because it's respectable and a good second half."

It is remarkable how the tables have turned since a month ago, when his men gave the champions a lesson in a 2-1 Premier League win at the Etihad Stadium.

Tuesday, though, was more emphatic from City.

Pep Guardiola started with strikers Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero on the bench, with Bernardo Silva deployed as a quasi-focal point in what would prove a masterstroke in their dominant first-half display.

With an extra midfielder, their fluid front four of Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne were too fleet of foot and thought for a defence without the injured Harry Maguire.

For the opening 10 minutes or so United were impressive, as City defender Nicolas Otamendi committed a series of fouls.

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    Manchester United have conceded three first-half goals at Old Trafford for the first time since May 1997 (against Middlesbrough), according to Opta Sports.

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    Manchester City's half-time lead of three or more goals in all competitions on the road since Pep Guardiola took over in 2016-17 - ahead of Tottenham (four), Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester United on three.

Then Silva intervened in the 17th minute with a 25m-finish into the top-right corner that gave David de Gea no chance.

With the Portuguese forward as the chief tormentor, City were rampant. He punished his opponents 16 minutes later with a pinpoint pass to Mahrez, who slipped in behind the defence, skated round de Gea, and slid the ball into the net.

City's third in the 38th minute had a hint of farce about it. Silva again unlocked the door, hitting a pass from halfway into the path of Mahrez.

He found de Bruyne, who left Phil Jones tackling the air as the centreback tumbled. While his shot was saved by de Gea, the ball ricocheted into the net off Andreas Pereira.

Despite the convincing win, Guardiola warned of United's powers of recovery, referencing the Red Devils' comeback from a 2-0 deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 in the Champions League last season.

"It's a good result, but it is not over because it is United. Last season is a good example against PSG," he told Sky Sports.

"In the second half, they changed their shape - a diamond, 4-4-2 - we struggled a little bit more to keep the ball. But yeah, good result.

"Hopefully in front of our fans we can make a good game and reach the final."

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2020, with the headline 'United have 'steep mountain to climb''. Print Edition | Subscribe