Lukaku keeps scoring and Martial stars as Man United thrash CSKA Moscow
MOSCOW -- Three thoughts on Manchester United's 4-1 win vs. CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League.
1. Man United cruise to victory
Champions League nights rarely come easier than this. Manchester United demolished CSKA Moscow -- aided by some atrocious defending from the home side -- and the only surprise was that Jose Mourinho's side did not score more. They were three goals to the good before half an hour had been played and only a series of fine saves from Igor Akinfeev averted total embarrassment for the Russian team.
United could not have wished for a better start. Only three minutes and 44 seconds had passed when Anthony Martial, checking inside from the left wing onto his right foot, swung a cross to the back post for Lukaku to attack. Making light of the meager challenge offered by 38-year-old centre-back Sergei Ignashevich, the United striker rose to head home.
Backed noisily at the English-style CSKA Arena, the hosts almost responded within two minutes and it took an exceptional one-handed save, low to his right, from David De Gea to deny Alan Dzagoev. United should then have made it two when Henrikh Mkhitaryan met Daley Blind's cutback but he sidefooted straight at Akinfeev, who saved with a foot.
The second did arrive soon enough, though, and it came via an ungainly challenge by Georgi Schennikov on Mkhitaryan, who was making for the right byline. Referee Jonas Eriksson rightly awarded a penalty; Martial dispatched it without fuss.
By the 27th minute, United were three up. The latest goal came from another Martial delivery and more weak defending from a veteran centre-back, as 35-year-old Vasili Berezutski air kicked and left Lukaku with the simplest of far-post finishes.
It was, to all intents and purposes, game over. Lukaku was denied a hat-trick goal by Akinfeev before De Gea, so sharp when called upon, brilliantly stopped Fedor Chalov from giving CSKA some encouragement before the break.
Akinfeev saved superbly again from Lukaku four minutes into the second half but United looked in no move to let up and their fourth, dispatched by Mkhitaryan after Akinfeev's parry from the rampaging Martial, was greeted by whistles from the home support.
The CSKA goalkeeper might have felt like joining in; this brought up 41 games since Akinfeev had kept a Champions League clean sheet and, at times, he resembled a one-man back line, a point was borne out with yet another impressive stop from substitute Jesse Lingard.
United scented a five-goal haul for the first time under Mourinho and another replacement, Matteo Darmian, should have confirmed it with 10 minutes to play only for Akinfeev to be alert once more.
It hardly mattered, although CSKA did pull a late goal back via Konstantin Kuchaev. It was created by the exciting young midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, the hosts' best player on the night, but was nothing but a footnote to a resounding United win.
2. Martial takes his chance to impress
Martial could hardly have made a more concise point to Mourinho. The forward has endured a frustrating season so far, starting only one Premier League game so far, but has made an impact when used and was superb throughout in Moscow, scoring once, recording two assists and running CSKA's creaking defence ragged throughout his 71 minutes on the pitch.
He is still to find his niche at United under Mourinho who, while last week praising an improvement in the forward's "happiness," is yet to appear particularly sold on Martial's gifts. So it was a decent vote of confidence when, for the second Champions League fixture in a row, the French international was given a start and he may now be hard to dislodge.
His performance contained all the facets required in a wide forward, tormenting his opponents but keeping a cool head in doing so and using the ball sensibly. Martial was direct but not erratic; he cleverly worked half a yard to deliver for Lukaku's opener and, even if his assist for the third came with some help from Berezutski, he had outfoxed two defenders in creating the chance.
The praise must be tempered: CSKA's defending was consistently appalling and, between them, United's forwards bullied them with a mixture of power, speed and skill. But Martial might think he has played himself ahead of Marcus Rashford, who struggles with his decision making when deployed out wide, in Mourinho's league selection.
3. Mourinho's three centre-backs have a comfortable night
Mourinho has aimed several digs at what he terms the "trendy" use of back threes throughout the Premier League, suggesting that it is really a cover for selecting five defensively-minded players.
But that did not stop him adopting a similar system at United during preseason and toward the end of Saturday's win at Southampton and he went one step further and selected three centre-backs from the start in Moscow.
Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof joined Eric Bailly in a new-look back line, with Mourinho's decision to rest Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia probably contributing to the change of system. The trio was rarely troubled, a couple of first-half flurries aside, and were instead able to play on the front foot.
Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera were willing recipients of the ball from their defenders and Daley Blind, stationed at left wing-back, was particularly ambitious in supporting attacks during the first half. Against such weak opponents this was perhaps the ideal chance to try something different and United seized it, committing men forward and rarely looking to content to sit on their advantage.
Herrera was in for the injured Marouane Fellaini and seems an ideal partner for Matic in the absence of Paul Pogba, his mobility and quick recycling of the ball making it easier for United to get up the pitch when under pressure.
From front to back, there was clarity in United's approach and the only disappointment was in that late goal from Kuchaev. United had switched off a little but their manager should have seen enough to suggest that his team can be effective at both ends with a back three, or five.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.