Normality appears to have been restored at Manchester United

Arsenal won the North London Derby with a 2-0 win over Tottenham. Shkodran Mustafi and Alexis Sanchez scored for Arsenal.

By Richard Buxton, Special to Sportsnet

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – Normality appears to have finally been restored at Manchester United

Jose Mourinho may still prefer not to revel in the hedonism of a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United on Saturday, with his team continuing to trail Manchester City in the Premier League title race, but there are tangible signs that the good times may again be set to grace Old Trafford.

Style and substance are again working in unison, with Paul Pogba’s return proving the Red Devils’ great equalizer. Since his last appearance on Sept. 12, they had lacked a focal point which tied the team together. By Mourinho’s own admission, United had missed the France international’s organizational skills and overall tactical discipline.

It returned with a vengeance here on an evening where the stars appeared to fully align for his manager.

“He affects our football,” Mourinho admitted.

“When he was injured I decided to close my mouth because I think it’s the best thing to do at the time. We cannot be crying, we have to play without certain players. We have to try and find solutions that we have.

“But we all know, myself and the fellow players, that some players influence the level of the team so we didn’t have much more creation.

“I’m so happy [but] let’s see the best decision for Wednesday [in the UEFA Champions League], if the best decision for him is to play or the best decision is to rest because he is a player we need to protect.”

More than Pogba’s grip on proceedings set this apart from the games which went before a hamstring injury derailed United’s neck-and-neck battle with City at the league’s summit. Even previously incompatible decisions, such as starting Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial in the same line-up, finally paid off.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s much-anticipated return from a season-ending cruciate knee injury, over six months in the waiting and two weeks ahead of schedule, saw Old Trafford’s already high decibel levels cranked to another level again.

Romelu Lukaku’s return to scoring ways after seven consecutive games was another welcome fillip as he rifled home in front of the Stretford End in a second half at odds with an opening 45 minutes in which he had regularly spurned chances from close-range. That barren spell should have ended far sooner with a cut-back but Belgium’s newly-crowned top scorer fluffed his lines when only a slight touch was required.

It was a similar outcome from a near-identical scenario as Victor Lindelof’s floated cross to Lukaku at the near post was headed clumsily over. Although the goals have eluded Lukaku at club level of late, there have been regular signs of promise with the towering front man contributing in other ways. An inch-perfect cross for Martial, himself already on the score sheet, to tee up Pogba for United’s third of the evening was a particular case in point.

Comprehensively vanquishing his long-standing nemesis Rafael Benitez in a first head-to-head meeting for over a decade added an extra weight of satisfaction for Mourinho.

The Portuguese tried to downplay the feuding with his bête noire, attempting to instead align it to rivalry of their former clubs. But this dysfunctional relationship has both existed and expanded far beyond the realms of Chelsea and Liverpool. Since the pair last faced off, neither they nor their respective entourages could resist trading blows in the intervening period. Benitez’s wife, Montse, stoked the fires further when her husband took the helm at Real Madrid two years ago in claiming that he was Mourinho’s stalking horse, saying “we tidy up his messes”.

But history remembers Benitez more as the beta figure among the pair. Following in Mourinho’s footsteps, both directly and indirectly, has rarely ended well at Inter Milan and Real. Only Chelsea’s 2013 Europa League triumph represents the exception – and even that was followed by his adversary returning months later to ultimately deliver a Premier League title.

He is also secondary in Mourinho’s list of fixations. Like Arsene Wenger, Antonio Conte and countless others, he remains a regular irritant but not the ultimate one. That honour does not reside in England’s North East but less than five miles in the same direction from Old Trafford. Barcelona’s decision to reject him in 2008 in favour of Pep Guardiola invariably places his obsession with the current Manchester City manager above all others.

Yet Benitez headed to the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ with history in his sights. No manager has won there with three different clubs and the Spaniard remains tied with only Martin O’Neill in doing similar with two sides. But in Newcastle, he appears to have rekindled his affinity with a fan base which is as devoted and borderline rabid in its obsession of the game as the one which he was forced to leave behind at Liverpool over seven years ago.

He understandably felt aggrieved that either side of Dwight Gayle’s opener – the first goal United had conceded at home in the Premier League all season – the Magpies had ample opportunities to punish their hosts during the first half. However, not for the first time, it was finance rather than finishing which was the staple of his argument.

“When you pay big money for players, they can make the difference,” Benitez said.

“You make mistakes [and] we paid for that because we played against top-class players.

“You see the difference in terms of money spent but it’s not something we didn’t know. We knew that was a massive difference between both teams.

“But I am really pleased with the performance in the first 30 minutes.”

The one-time Valencia coach may have had a point with United’s four scorers commanding a combined fee of £227 million. But a price cannot be truly placed on this all-singing, all-dancing ensemble when it truly comes together as it does with performances like this.

Although they may not be able to end City’s dominance, Mourinho’s side are again showing why they at least will cut the current eight-point gulf back down to size.

Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium.

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