The look of sheer disbelief on Jose Mourinho’s face said it all.
Eyes widened and face contorted in shock, the Manchester United manager could scarcely believe the inch-perfect free-kick Ashley Young had just delivered into the top corner during Tuesday’s 4-2 triumph at Watford.
This incredulity at the staggering events of Vicarage Road was undoubtedly multiplied by the fact the 32-year-old had only moments before lashed a thundering skimmer past the helpless Heurelho Gomes for the opener, while his deflected effort at the weekend provided the only goal of a stodgy 1-0 win against promoted Brighton.
Beyond providing fresh viral content for the insatiable vultures callously manning Twitter’s plethora of ‘football banter’ accounts, the reaction of the ‘Special One’ spoke volumes. For all that is to be lauded about Young’s latest renaissance, true title pretenders should not be leaning so heavily on him.
Do not forget, we are talking about a veteran right winger who has been shunted into left-back/ left wing-back.
A learned diligence in defence, boundless energy and punishing accuracy on crosses have been behind the player’s re-emergence.
— Ashley Young (@youngy18) November 28, 2017
But in a squad assembled at lavish cost, something has gone wrong for Young to be a leading figure.
His displays directly shame the likes of specialists Luke Shaw and Daley Blind. The former has steadily become persona non grata since being signed for £30 million (Dh183.9m) in June 2014.
They also embarrass mothballed playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan and even Romelu Lukaku, a striker who Mourinho jokes desperately requires a new boot deal to replicate his electric start in red.
These are the players who should be deciding United’s matches. Not Young, for whom United supporters have grown wearily to like after years stained by diving and underperformance following a 2011 arrival from Aston Villa.
Full-back is a position of growing importance as the trend continues for midfields dominating the centre ground. Premier League leaders Manchester City lavished £131.5m (Dh647.1m) this summer on positions Pep Guardiola has always valued.
Young’s simultaneous rise in importance is just another mark of disparity between the two rivals.
The World Cup draw takes place in Moscow on Friday with each of the 32 teams set to find out their group stage fate.
From the four pots eight groups will be drawn from A-H with the opening clash featuring hosts Russia to be played on June 14.
The allocation of the pots is done by using the FIFA rankings system and of course, have been dissected and debated.
But the rankings don’t necessarily reflect the true position of the 32 sides so we’ve gone ahead and analysed is 1-32 with their actual ranking in brackets.
First up is teams 25-32…
25. Costa Rica (26)
Spain’s 5-0 thrashing of the Costa Ricans in a friendly last month hardly bodes well but when stakes are riding high, the underdogs can bite.
They set the United States on the way to a surprise qualifying exit after coming away with a 2-0 victory from New Jersey and held runaway group leaders Mexico to a draw at home.
And if you need reminding of what they did three years ago, only penalties prevented Costa Rica from advancing to the World Cup semi-finals at the expense of the Netherlands.
Their strength is in their experience as the average age of players among their qualifying squad, marshalled by former Fulham midfielder Bryan Ruiz.
Oscar Ramirez has carried on the good work of 2014 coach Jorge Luis Pinto but with little fresh talent to emerge since then, it is reasonable to wonder if lightning can strike twice.
26. South Korea (59)
South Korea became the only side outside of Europe and South Korea to have featured in every tournament since 1986, despite a rocky qualification.
They needed Syria’s failure to beat Iran to get through the Asian qualifiers after a 0-0 draw with Uzbekistan and they don’t look strong enough to fair any better than their weak surrender in the group stage four years ago.
The Premier League trio of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, Swansea’s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong, give them crucial experience from Europe.
Son in particular will be their dynamic star man and is the top-scoring player in Premier League history.
27. Tunisia (27)
A fifth World Cup beckons for Tunisia and it will be their first in 12 years but for the Eagles of Carthage to take flight they will need to avoid significant resistance in the form of a tough group.
Wahbi Khazri has rebounded from his nightmare spell at Sunderland with Ligue 1 club Rennes and he heads up a new generation of Tunisian stars while former Monaco man Aymen Abdennour carries their main goal threat.
Only two players called up for the last round of African qualifying games had more than 50 caps so inexperience is their main issue.
But having beaten the likes Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea to make it to Russia they’ll be entering the tournament with little fear.
28. Russia (65)
As a host nation, expectation will be high but it really shouldn’t be.
National pride will be at stake and with the luxury of being in Pot 1 they will hope to make an impression in the group stages at the very least.
The complexion of this side has changed drastically since reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and they are actually the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams.
As captain, Igor Akinfeev bears the burden of pressure but his shoulders have collapsed when it comes to the big games with mistakes tarnishing an otherwise talented stopper.
There are problems off the pitch, too with reports of disputes between senior players and coach Stanislav Cherchesov refusing to go away.
They lack any creative guile and will pin a lot of their hopes on the resurgent Krasnodar forward Fyodor Smolov.
29. Peru (11)
Peru possess one of the meanest defences in South American football with Ricardo Gareca’s men only conceding seven goals in eight games in 2017.
However, there are huge concerns even before they step foot in Russia next year.
Paolo Guerrero is likely to be banned for a FIFA doping offence and although he’s appealing it’s unlikely the 33-year-old captain will be successful.
Their aging winger Jefferson Farfan is beginning to see his powers wane now aged 33 and despite Gareca bringing a sense of organisation they lack any real attacking thrust.
The Peruvian’s are somewhat destined to fall flat in Russia.
30. Saudi Arabia (63)
Saudi Arabia are onto their third coach in three months with Bert van Marwijk’s replacement Edgardo Bauza sacked after a series of poor post-qualifying friendly results.
Former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi has now taken charge but a tall order awaits despite Saudi Arabia topping their qualification group to edge out Japan and Australia.
Mohammed Al-Sahlawi is the talisman. He scored 16 goals in qualification – joint highest throughout all the confederations – but the squad lacks European experience and the managerial chaos has hardly helped matters.
31. Australia (39)
The foot of the post denied Syria progression to the final play-off at Australia’s expense with the rising star Omar Al Somah cruelly thwarted.
However, the Soceroos made no mistake against Honduras winning 3-1 over the two legs.
They’ve since had manager Ange Postecoglou step down and their softening attack still relies on a 37-year-old Tim Cahill.
32. Panama (56)
Panama celebrated their qualification to a first-ever World Cup by declaring a national holiday.
They won’t catch any breaks in Russia, though.
Luis Tejada is their key man with 43 goals for his country but they are a veteran side who have been known to crumble with their 4-0 thrashing by the USA a testament to that.
Cazorla has not played for the Gunners since October last year and said earlier this month he almost lost his foot due to a serious infection.
Arsene Wenger had expressed hope Cazorla might recover in time to feature again in January but the 32-year-old has suffered a fresh setback.
“Due to some discomfort in the tendon the last few days, I have had to undergo surgery,” Cazorla tweeted on Wednesday.
“It is delaying the date of my return to the field. I maintain my hope and motivation to enjoy my great passion, football.”
In case you don't care too much about Santi Cazorla undergoing more ankle surgery, watch this. A loss to football every second he's out injured.. pic.twitter.com/ob4IGSiz0o— talkingbaws.com (@talkingbaws) November 29, 2017
The message was accompanied by a picture of Cazorla making a gesture of prayer while in action for Arsenal.
Wenger has admitted Cazorla’s injury is the worst he has ever known, with the player’s foot requiring a series of operations, as well as a skin graft from his arm.
Cazorla joined Arsenal in 2012 from Malaga and has made more than 150 appearances for the club.
Provided by Press Association Sport