Man United beats City in EFL Cup Manchester derby, easing pressure on Mourinho

Juan Mata
Juan Mata scored the winning goal for Manchester United in the 54th minute. (AP Photo)

For an October game in the lamentably irrelevant League Cup, now for some reason renamed as the English Football League Cup, this one actually mattered. Because it was a Manchester derby, of course. But also, and especially, because for all the hype surrounding the arrivals of Pep Guardiola at Man City and Jose Mourinho at Man United, both managers rather needed a win at this early juncture of the season.

City had not won in three league games and got hammered 4-0 in its last Champions league outing against Barcelona. United had also not won in three in the league – scoring just once in that stretch – and claimed victory in just one of its last six games.

Yet they took different approaches to this fourth-round clash, with 16 teams remaining in the tournament. United appeared pretty much at full strength, with only the pine-riding Michael Carrick sprinkled into the usual blend of regulars. After disheveling performances against Liverpool (0-0) and Chelsea (0-4), Mourinho figured he’d better get the win.

City, however, fielded a distinctly reserve-y team. For the building pressure, Guardiola wasn’t going to bend and treat this tournament as anything more than what it is to most: a third-tier event best utilized to blood inexperienced players. He used a blend of reserves, rotation players and young talent.

Mourinho was rewarded for investing more of his first team’s precious energy with a 1-0 win, thanks to a Juan Mata strike early in the second half.

In just the second minute, City fired off a warning shot. Jesus Navas whipped a cross onto the head of Kelechi Iheanacho, but the young Nigerian got his header all wrong.

Late on in an otherwise incident-free half, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shot was blocked at the last moment.

But four minutes into the second act, United began to convert its slight edge in the run of play into chances. Zlatan fed Paul Pogba on the run, but the Frenchman’s near-post finish was tipped onto the woodwork by goalkeeper Willy Caballero – whose name, it’s important for you to know, translates either to William The Gentleman or Bill The Knight.

Then, in the 54th minute, Zlatan squared the ball from the byline. Ander Herrera collided with Fernando, sending both of them crashing down, but the ball rolled to Mata, who scored convincingly.

Not much else of note happened. A Zlatan backheel almost played in Marcus Rashford, who just wasn’t having his day.

And 18-year-old Pablo Maffeo diffused a United breakaway when he cut out Rashford’s low cross to Pogba in front of an open goal after tracking him almost the entire length of the field.

Man United deserved the win. And the relief was apparent on Mourinho’s face in his postmatch handshake with Guardiola – which was once all drama but is now something of a non-event. The truth is that Mourinho is working with a shorter rope than Guardiola, whose appointment was years in coming at Man City, and who will be given time to build, if he even needs it. Mourinho lobbied for the United job and was damaged goods after flaming out spectacularly in his second stint with Chelsea last season, just months after winning a third league title with the Blues.

As such, a dearth of victories was probably more harmful to the Portuguese, even if he was in no apparent danger of losing his job. Perhaps the victory portends the end of a brief slump on the red side of Manchester. It continues on the blue side, where Guardiola will be expected to deliver more in short order.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.