Marco Silva would probably prefer to be picking up league points than examining the possibilities presented by cup football in England, though perhaps the Hull City manager should view his first two games as a honeymoon period.
Quite an eventful one at that. Victory at the first time of asking in the FA Cup at the weekend may have been marred by a shortage of home fans – Hull supporters were staging a protest against the club owners – but this occasion was even weirder. First of all Silva was up against the only other Portuguese manager in the Premier League, and possibly the only one to claim to know him well. “He is one of the game’s good young coaches and I hope he wins some matches,” José Mourinho said. “Just not this one.”
Second, Silva was joining the tiny band of managers to have taken over at a club involved in a semi-final. Not a position that goes hand in hand with being bottom of the table, even if Hull enjoyed a run to the FA Cup final three years ago. Theoretically, at least before the game started, Silva could regard himself as one step from Wembley were he in a mood to count his blessings.
Then the game did start and Silva was suddenly confronted by the enormity of the gulf that can exist between Premier League sides. All through the first half the electronic perimeter hoardings kept flashing a message from the home side’s official tractor partner, not a development expected at the KCom Stadium anytime soon. This was not just a noisy near full house at Old Trafford either, this was a crowd anxious to see Manchester United record a ninth successive win. As if that did not promise entertainment enough after the thin fare of the past three years, to judge by the giddy chanting in the car park an hour before kick-off, whole coachloads of excitable schoolboys had turned up for the express purpose of seeing Wayne Rooney break Sir Bobby Charlton’s scoring record by reaching a club 250.
Mourinho did not disappoint anyone on that front, naming Rooney behind Marcus Rashford in attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was apparently ill, though he may have been rested anyway with an eye on Liverpool on Sunday. Rooney did not exactly disappoint either, though if any of his admirers have been keeping up with events these last couple of years they will be aware he no longer leads the line like the snorting young bull of old but rather sits in a figurative armchair within a few yards of the penalty spot waiting for opportunities to arrive.
He can still stick the ball away when given the chance, though perhaps not as acrobatically or as efficiently as Ibrahimovic, yet the trouble with this plan is that it transmits itself too readily to defenders. A Rooney waiting in the middle is a Rooney too easy to mark or, put another way, too difficult for his team-mates to find, which is why from the midpoint of the first half onwards the striker’s support cast began to take matters into their own hands. One by one United’s forwards tired of finding a way through a packed penalty area and tried potshots. Henrikh Mkhitaryan had three in a row, the first the best chance of all after neat work by Juan Mata, then Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba, Rashford and Ander Herrera all tried and failed.
When half-time arrived Rooney was one of the few red-shirted players on the pitch still to have a shy at goal. His frustration led him to have a word with Kevin Friend at the end of the half, at which point a supportive crowd began chanting his name. He probably needed the encouragement. The only sniff he had had was right on the stroke of the interval following a thrilling break by Mkhitaryan but Rooney and Rashford managed to get in each other’s way to allow David Meyler to make a clearance.
All this time, though Hull were defending doggedly, they were managing to create a few opportunities. Adama Diomandé even struck the post, which was closer than United had come, though he was adjudged to have been offside. Mourinho’s plan to grab enough goals to kill the contest before the second leg was being jeopardised by the old failing of domination without penetration. In the adjacent dugout Silva must have been encouraged by what he was seeing, apart from the consideration that standards in the Premier League must be quite high if a team as tidy as Hull are struggling at the bottom.
Finally, six minutes into the second half, a diagonal ball from Pogba gave Rooney the sight of goal he was looking for, only for a well-struck shot to flash the wrong side of a post. Mata put United ahead shortly after that, Mkhitaryan’s header to set up the chance effectively cutting out Rooney. When Mkhitaryan telegraphed a pass on United’s next attack, all too obviously trying to tee up Rooney for the record but succeeding only in allowing Hull to intercept, it began to look as if it would not be the captain’s night. Sure enough, within minutes Rooney was making way for Anthony Martial. There will be other opportunities, no doubt, but everyone at Old Trafford would like to see this saga brought to a conclusion sooner rather than later. Not least because going into games thinking of records invites distraction from what should be the main focus, the opposition. Hull were pretty good here, and not just in keeping Rooney off the scoresheet.