It is a long, arduous journey when you set out to win the Europa League and, 11 games and seven months in, Jose Mourinho’s team have one foot in the semi-finals as their manager wonders aloud when this side will develop the killer instinct that will make his life easier.
A draw away at the leaders of the Belgian top flight, who hung in there to snatch an 87th-minute equaliser, is no bad result given that the deal should be closed at Old Trafford in a week’s time. But it only served to emphasise the mood that for all their might and personnel, United are a pretty underwhelming proposition at times like these, the masters of the draw - this was the 10th 1-1 of the season.
Mourinho himself seems a little bored by it all and when he delivered himself for the post-match analysis, it was his attacking players whom he decided to point the finger at this time for not finishing off the game when they were a goal to the good.
“If I was a Man United defender I would be very upset with the attacking players,” he said, “because they had to kill the game and they didn't.”
In the wider context of his regular game of blame it felt a little sour, although relative to what he had just witnessed he did have a point. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who scored his team’s only goal, should have added a second 10 minutes after half-time and Paul Pogba had another good attempt saved, although Mourinho absolved him of blame.
United could yet win two trophies this season, although they often demonstrate all the ruthlessness of a hitman with ethical obligations. They are four wins from securing the trophy that Mourinho first delivered at Porto almost 14 years ago, the launching of his career in earnest, and while he may consider himself now above such trifles it does provide a good Champions League qualification alternative to the top four race.
Anderlecht never gave up in front of their spirited home support in this nice little stadium, but they are nowhere near to the quality that United will face on Sunday. Chelsea come to Old Trafford requiring five wins to seal the title and should they get seven from their final seven games they will surpass their own Premier League record of 95 points set in Mourinho’s first season there.
United might well be capable of stopping Antonio Conte’s attack but will they be able to demonstrate the kind of match-winning spirit that has eluded them for much of the season?
United are the biggest fish left in this competition and having committed such resources to it, they will feel now that they can go all the way to the final in Stockholm on May 24. Even so, this was not the red-hot performance one might expect from one of Europe’s leading teams, but then, United are a long way from being considered one of them.
It was for the most part focussed and disciplined but they lack the big-club swagger that blows away opponents like Anderlecht.
Mourinho had Michael Carrick back in midfield, and the Englishman controlled the game as he can although there was no great pace to United’s attacks, rather they simply moved Anderlecht progressively backwards over the course of the first half.
Of United’s attacking players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was shrewd and careful in possession but it was Marcus Rashford who was the most dangerous.
Anderlecht were captained by another 19-year-old, Youri Tielemans, a full 16 years younger than Carrick, his opposite number on the night. The Belgian midfielder is yet another prospect from the plentiful supply line this country has established in recent years and while for the most part he found himself chasing United, he never gave up.
Anderlecht have two very strong central defenders in Serigne Mbodji and Bram Nuytinck, the former of the pair one could imagine adapting quite nicely to the demands of the English game. United’s attack were often frustrated by these two, although Rashford’s sweet touch on 17 minutes to stun a ball on the left allowed him to whip in a right-footed shot that Ibrahimovic connected with. The goalkeeper Martinez Ruben stopped that effort and Jesse Lingard, playing in a deeper role, could only put his shot against the post.
Rashford plucked another throughball out the air with his toe nine minutes later and Mbodji was there to sweep it away again.
United can be ponderous on the ball, no matter how much they have of it, although eventually they created the space for the goal, when Ibrahimovic saw the chance to play in Antonio Valencia down the right and his cross was cut back into the stride of Rashford. The 19-year-old hit a good first-time shot that Ruben saved to his right but could not push far enough away from Mkhitaryan who had elected to make a smart run in on goal and guided the ball in from a tight angle.
Otherwise, the Armenian only flickered in the game, a booking for a bad tackle on Tielemans, an outrageous nutmeg in midfield, and he was substituted before the end. Before then he missed from a Matteo Darmian cross during a good start to the second half by Anderlecht.
Mourinho blamed his team for leaving too much space on the counterattack and even with Maroune Fellaini on as a substitute they finally conceded. Ivan Obradovic crossed from the left and Leander Dendoncker connected with a magnificent header to equalise.
Mourinho was right that United should have been out of sight by then, but he might also ask himself why his team are so laborious in attack. They have so many options in terms of pace, experience and the eagerness of youth and yet they never threatened to overwhelm a team of such relatively modest quality as Anderlecht.
At Old Trafford they should be far too strong for the Belgians, although with this side it is hard to take too much for granted and the more times they let an opponent off the hook, the more likely that they will one day pay a greater price for it.
Jose Mourinho speaks
We have to kill matches. We have chances, We have control. We don't score goals. You risk ... You saw the same as I saw. Don't ask me to go too far. Lots of space. Good chances. Lots of half-chances [ruined] by bad decisions, sloppy passes, bad control. Sloppy is the right word perhaps. In my poor English I cannot find a better word. You put altogether the performance and [in the final third] you squeeze not much juice out of it. If I was one of my defenders I would be very disappointed because you do all the work and you have all the chances but the people who can kill the game off, they didn't.
Michael Carrick speaks
We got sloppy. We've got to kill teams off. We should have won that comfortably. It's frustrating. We need to be more ruthless, It was too comfortable, almost too easy. We din't create the opportunities we should have because we were sloppy. It's frustrating. We're better than that. It's that little edge that makes the difference.
Dendoncker's goal: an unstoppable header
But Fellaini was at fault. For a central midfielder he doesn't seem to be able to concentrate properly and track the runs of his direct opponent.
United dominate for two-thirds of the game but have to settle for a draw. They've got an away goal, though, and played well but still don't score enough.
Pogba is found in space by Ibrahimovic down the right but he hesitates and squares the ball instead of shooting and the ball bobbles behind Fellaini.
Fosu-Mensah is booked within a minute for a sliding, studs-up challenge that Hanni avoids.
Mkhitaryan goes off to be replaced by Fosu-Mensah who will have three minutes of added time to shine.
Pogba lashes a wild shot high and hideous from sheer frustration.
For the first time Obradovic goes on an overlap, sprints down the left touchline and arcs in a wonderful cross that Dendoncker bullets in at the apex of his leap from 12 yards. Darmian was tracking in from left-back but couldn't get there while Fellaini let his man go.
Anderlecht 1-1 Manchester United (Dendoncker)
Pogba is found by Ibrahimovic's exquisite diagonal flick and he shuffles the ball from under his feet to thud a low shot that Rubens turns round the post. From the corner Fellaini floats a free header into Ruben's gloves.
The quality of corners continues to be this continent's shame, United defend it break and Valencia and Pogba combine to cut the ball back to Fellaini 20 yards out on the right of the D. He meets it sweetly and crashes a half volley straight down Ruben's throat.
Anderlecht enjoy a spell of possession and work the ball out to Acheampong who centres conservatively across the 18-yard line. Hanni, now properly attuned for a day at the races, kills it, turns and spears a low shot that is deflected a yard past Romero's right post.
Hanni hasn't looked at the races since coming on, off the pace and his touch too heavy. Anderlecht make their last sub, bringing on top-scorer Teodorczyk for Thelin. 0-1 isn't fatal by any means, though. No need to go all in yet.
Former Standard Liege nuisance Marouane Fellaini enters proceedings to raucous boos and replaces Marcus Rashford. His first touch inspires impressive howls of catcalling.
Ibrahimovich holds up the ball in a stand-off inside the Anderlecht box on the right. He then slips by Nuytinck and pulls it back towards Mkhitaryan. It doesn't get there because, United claim, there was a hand ball despite negligible evidence. The referee is unconvinced.
Mistake by Bailly lets the promising Thelin behind him on the Anderlecht left. The Sweden forward cuts a low cross back to the 18-yard box where Rojo eases Hanni off the ball. There's a shout for a penalty but the referee gives his head a shake.
Carrick plays the old soldier when knocked over by Tielemans in an aerial challenge. It earns United a free-kick in their own half which they work to Mkhitaryan who is knocked over by Tielemans. More than an element of Mkhitaryan buttering his studs there to fall so easily and though he is given a free-kick, Tielemans, who is a booking away from missing the Old Trafford match, escapes the yellow card.
Yellow card for Obradovich for a horrible sliding full-frontal scissors tackle on Rashford that brought Mourinho to his feet and turned his face to thunder.
Top tackle from Appiah when Martial attempted to nutmeg him. It ended with Martial on his face but the ball out to him from Pogba was a perfectly-weighted peach.
Like they did in the first half, United have snuffed out Anderlecht's early exuberance. A second home substitution: Hanni on for Stanciu.
Manchester United take off Lingard and introduce Anthony Martial.
Kara and Nuytinck, who look a good partnership, again snuff out a quarter-chance by sandwiching Rashford legally as he darted through the middle.
Here's the touch-map
Between them Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have turned Antonio Valencia into a world class right-back. Tielemans plays his best pass of the night to open some space for Acheampong in front of Valencia. He takes it early but the cross/shot is deflected to the edge of the D where Dendoncker slides in and tries to steer a shot around Bailly and in at the far post. But he loops it wide.
Anderlecht sub: Alexandru Chipciu on for Massimo Bruno.
Good chance worked by Pogba's cute pass out to the left wing where Dramian, bombing forward, drags back a cross. Mkhitaryan leaps to try to steer it in on the volley with a kind of stun/stab but bends it round the post.
Another cross from Acheampong, a crisp outswinger that is blocked by Bailly. Pogba balletically controls it with a leg in grand battement then wins it when it drops, too.
And now Valencia somehow avoids conceding a penalty when he stops Acheampong's wriggling run in from the left. It looked certain that he was going to lose his footing but he didn't, Valencia didn;'t give him the opportunity.
Anderlcht have started the better as they did the first half, or 'first stanza' as some numpty always writes. Valencia stops two goalbound attempts, from Bruno's deflected shot from the right that was speared through Darmian's legs and then Acheampong's short-range blast from eight yards which he wears in the midriff.
Carrick is booked for yanking back Acheampong and also concedes a free-kick 22 yards out, left of centre. Stanciu takes it and arcs it wantonly over the bar.
United build from the back and Rojo chips a long ball upfield. Ibrahimovic and Nuytinck challenge for it and the latter ends up with a kind of nose job via the former's boot when he stoops to head it.
Disturbing scenes from Lyon where the match is now finally underway
Half time stats
I've added pictures below but you may have to refresh to make them appear.
Average touch positions
After an initially enterprising 15 minutes from Anderlecht, United and Michael Carrick have wrested control of this match.
Ibrahimovic skips down the left, with the stop-start trick, cuts inside and squares it over to Valencia who thinks 'what the hell' and larrups a shot that hits Nutinck and out for a throw.
Mourinho will appreciate Rashford tracking back and stopping Appiah's drive up the right by outsprinting him and, Max Miller alert!, blocking his passage.
Manchester United corner on the right is bullet-headed clear by the mightily impressive Mbodji Kara.
It's all United now and their fans are singing that old "Follow, Follow" song. 'Follow the Reds to Glasgow' in the 2002 original.
Ibrahimovic works a pass out to the right, precisely into Valencia's stride. The right-back scooped a cross to the 18-yard line where Rashford met it neatly on the half-volley and struck it low towards the bottom right corner. Ruben was down sharply to palm it away but Mkhitaryan, professor of geometry at UMIST, hooked it in from 270 degrees.
Anderlecht 0-1 Manchester United (Mkhitaryan)
Stanciu looks a proper player when dribbling. A really attractively bustling gait. When his attempted thrust breaks down United pass it around in the Dutch mode.
Carrick plays another magnificent flighted pass that starts a move that ends with Mkhitaryan's too tame shot on the turn that scoops the ball into Ruben's grasp.
Lingard earns a free-kick, 25 yards out, left of centre, when tripped by Appiah. Ibrahimovich takes a bends it round the wall at hip height but Kara is just behind and blocks it. He's been a wall so far tonight.
Kara to the rescue again - the Senegal centre-back making a last-ditch tackle when Mkhitaryan's nifty footwork isolated Nuytinck before slipping a pass towards the penalty spot to meet Lingard's run. Kara read the pass perfectly and slid in to clear.
Excellent Hail Mary 60-yard pass from Carrick drops perfectly in the D for Rashford but the equally excellent Kara nicks it off him and tries skiddily to dribble upfield. His third touch is too strong and takes it into the path of Mkhitaryan 25 yards out and he skedaddles to the right, cocks his leg and drives a low shot that is blocked by the helpful, sliding Nuytinck.
The referee has the opportunity to practise spelling Mkhitaryan by inscribing his name in the book after the United midfielder tripped Tielemans.
Owen Hargreaves is a fine pundit, I think. United enjoying more possession now and building slightly too slowly for Mourinho. Eventually Lingard floats a decent cross into the box but there's no one at the back post.
Absorbing game but very open.
Lingard hooks a rebound on to the right post from five yards after Ibrahimovic's attempted turn-in from six yards was saved brilliantly by Ruben. Ibrahimovic had been picked out by an excellent left-wing cross from, I think, Rashford and the teenager comes infield to shoot a moment later, but rattles the backboards with his right-footed attempted bender.
Thelin puts the ball into the United net when found by Tielemans on the 18-yard line. Both he and Acheampong were a yard offside though.
United corner after Lingard got in behind Obradovich and the left-back and Nuytinck blundered the ball behind. Again United waste the corner and leave themselves vulnerable to the quick counter. Anderlecht take it up the right and Dendoncker and Bruno overload Darmian and the latter crosses to the near post where Thelin has drifted offside.
Clever little pass from Pogba who drew Dendoncker then threaded a short reverse ball to Rashford 30 yards from goal. Rashford took it in his stride, looked to lengthen it as he dribbled towards the box until Kara muscled in front of him and chivvied the ball away.
It's Acheampong again on the left, found by Bruno's crossfield ball, and he advances to the angle of the box before spearing a diagonal daisy-cutter through the six-yard box that drifts beyond the back post with no one there to turn it in.
Mkhitaryan dances through the centre until he reaches the D where Nuytinck, on the half-turn, shows him inside and whips it off him with his toe. Anderlecht break and again try to exploit the Ghana winger Acheampong's pace. They almost do but not quite. He looks like a pigeon-catcher.
Pogba knocks one over the top from the centre-circle and with Anderlecht pushing up he gets a clear run at the keeper who beats him to it with some shrewd sweeper-keeper anticipation.
Romero has to race out of the box and slices a volleyed clearance behind him for a corner. He had to be sharp to stop Acheampong gobbling up Stanciu's delightful long pass. United defend the corner competently and fly up the other end. Rashford has already made two clever runs. He needs to be found with some space in front of him rather than right up by the byline.
Anderlecht switch it rapidly and Acheampong has a dig from 25 yards on the left that Bailly blocks. Tielemans centres from the left after cushioning Dendoncker's pass and Thelin's in space in the middle but mistimes his attempt to sweep a shot in with his left. He slips and hangs his head.
Off we go and Anderlecht almost immediately have a throw-in, lose possession and concede another. United scramble the ball across to the left for Rashford who cannot control the overhit pass and we have throw No3 within 60 seconds.
Lyon v Besiktas is delayed
Because Besiktas fans have been raining missiles on to Lyon fans below. As someone who has been thinking of Kevin Speight and Chris Loftus this week, 17 years on from their murder in Istanbul, one can only shake one's head.
Is BT Sport's pitchside pundit. Never forget:
— Crap 90s Football (@Crap90sFootball) March 14, 2017
Jose Mourinho speaks
"The special feeling is now it's the only competition we can win. We share our ambitions with seven other teams and we need to beat three of them. Anderlecht is the first. I try to share my special feeling with the players.
"Sergio Romero is playing virtually very match in the Europa League and he deserves to. We trust, we have two very good goalkeepers and two very good young ones behind. We are fine."
Your teams in the traditional style
Anderlecht Ruben, Appiah, Kara, Nuytinck, Obradovic; Bruno, Tielemans, Dendoncker, Stanciu, Acheampong; Thelin.
Substitutes Boeckx, Deschacht, Spajic, Chipciu, Diego Capel, Teodorczyk, Hanni.
Manchester United: Romero, Valencia, Bailly, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Lingard, Rashford, Ibrahimovic.
Substitutes De Gea, Blind, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Herrera, Fellaini, Martial, .
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).
— RSC Anderlecht (@rscanderlecht) April 13, 2017
Lukasz Teodorczyk is fit enough to make the bench while club captain Sofiane Hanni also has to settle for a place as a sub. Anderlecht manager Rene Weiler has stuck to his word and kept on-loan Ruben in goal for the Europa League rather than league keeper Frank Boeckx, who is an avid Liverpool fan. "Ah, well, it's only Manchester," Boeckx said when asked if he would resent not being picked to start.
Jose Mourinho names his starting XI
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 13, 2017
I thought Shaw may have kept his place but Darmian, I think, has been playing well on the left even if he looks better to me on the left in a midfield four in front of a back three.
And welcome to coverage of the first leg of Manchester United's Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht. Having been knocked out in the Round of 16 the last two times they were parachuted into this competition, this is their first quarter-final since 1985 when they took on Hungary's Videoton, drew 1-1 on aggregate but went down 5-4 on penalties in Szekesfehervar when Frank Stapleton and Arthur Albiston missed from 12 yards. Some consolation, though, they went on to win the FA Cup final at the end of the season.
Too often over the past two decades the Champions League has been portrayed as the be-all and end-all of continental tournaments yet some of the greatest European nights, the ones most cherished by those who were there, have come in the Uefa Cup and its defunct sibling, the Cup Winners' Cup. I know they want to win it to qualify for next year's Champions League but it also offers United the significant opportunity to complete their honours board – should they win they would join Juventus, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Chelsea as the only teams with all three proper Uefa trophies on their CVs.
Manchester United have played the Purple People in three previous ties, famously recording their largest ever European victory at Old Trafford in 1956, winning 10-0 by virtue of four goals from Dennis Viollet and a hat-trick from Tommy Taylor, after winning 2-0 in Brussels. They have lost their last two away matches between the two, Carlo Sartori scoring in a 3-1 defeat en route to winning their first European Cup in 1968, and Denis Irwin grabbing one in a Champions League 2-1 group game defeat 17 years ago.
Anderlecht have won this comeptition before, back in 1983 when they beat Benfica 2-1 in the two-legged final. They came as close as they could to defending it without winning again the next year when Tony Parks won it for Spurs with a terrific performance in goal in the penalty shoot-out in the final that left Frankie Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo, Morten Olsen and Frank Arnesen on their haunches at White Hart Lane.
They led the Belgian league by two points from Club Brugge to take prime place in the Championship play-offs and their one draw nd victory so far in the six-team mini-league has extended their lead over Brugge to four points. So far in the knockout rounds they got pst Zenit on away goals following a 3-3 aggregate draw and Apoel with 1-0 victories home and away. But they don't have Lukasz Teodorczyk, who has scored 27 goals this season, fit tonight and though they have now signed him up to a long-term deal once his loan spell from Dynamo Kiev expires, he is expected to move to England in the summer.
One thing to note: in 2013 Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored four at the Contant Vanden Stock Stadion when PSG won 0-5 in a Champions League group game and two of the goals, his second (a back-flick) and third (a 25-yard screamer) were so good the home fans got off their backsides to applaud with rueful respect. I'm not allowed legally to embed the clips but they're in the usual places if you care to check.
Did you know that the Vanden Stock family, who have held the presidency of the club through the late Constant and his son Roger since 1971, used to own the Belle-Vue brewery? Who'll be Krieking and who'll be cracking tonight? Right, on to the meat raffle ...