Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba reached a personal milestone after he scored a brace to help his team beat West Ham 2-1.
The Frenchman scored twice from the spot to take his tally to 13 goals this season. When coupled with his nine assists, Pogba now has been involved in 22 goals in the Premier League this season. He has never been involved in more goals in a season during his career.
His previous best tally dates way back to the 2015/16 campaign when he scored eight goals and recorded 12 assists for Juventus in Serie A.
At United, his numbers had peaked in 2017/18 season. The Frenchman netted six goals and made 10 in that campaign.
Pogba is enjoying statistically his best season yet and has five more games to take it further.
Seven of the goals he has scored in the league this season have come from the penalty spot and he has clearly made the best of being the primary penalty taker for United.
The midfielder has been crucial to United’s resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the team needs him at the top of his game, should they hope to finish in the top four.
A brace of penalties from Paul Pogba – either side of Felipe Anderson’s leveller – lifted United above Arsenal and into fifth in the Premier League table, two points behind fourth-placed Chelsea.
However, Hammers boss Manuel Pellegrini questioned the awarding of both spot-kicks and rued Anderson having a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside when the score was goalless.
Solskjaer, who made five changes to his line-up ahead of the return leg of their Champions League quarter-final in Barcelona on Tuesday, did not speak about the questionable decisions.
But he said afterwards: “Sometimes you get more than what you deserve and today was one of those nights.
“We were lucky it wasn’t Barcelona on the other side, but West Ham played well, played better than us, created chances.
“It evens itself out in the long run. We were lucky to get away with the three points – even a draw at one point I would have taken.
“You can go through all sorts, but (the 1-0 defeat to Barcelona in midweek) was hard, physically, mentally.
“We have a game on Tuesday so I had to make a couple of decisions. I didn’t make it easy for the boys because I made changes.
“Two were forced, the full-backs (Luke Shaw and Ashley Young) were suspended. Scott (McTominay) was fantastic in midweek but we needed a big performance from him again and I didn’t think mentally he was ready. (Marcus Rashford) was not 100 per cent ready.”
Solskjaer feels the Champions League scheduling did his side no favours.
He added: “I don’t understand that. Someone needs to explain to me why Wednesday night then becomes a Tuesday night in the Champions League the next week.
“The other teams played Tuesday night and then have Wednesday night, one day extra before and one day extra after.
“That’s a strange one. We tried to Google it but we couldn’t. That’s a strange decision and of course that would have made it different for us, I wouldn’t have made so many changes.”
Diogo Dalot’s trailing leg looked to play Anderson onside before the Brazilian rifled past David De Gea.
But the offside flag came to United’s rescue and it was the hosts who went ahead in the 19th minute through Pogba’s 19th-minute spot-kick, given despite seemingly minimal contact from Robert Snodgrass on Juan Mata just inside the area.
Anderson levelled with a sliding finish four minutes after the resumption, while substitute Michail Antonio rattled the bar before his downward header was clawed away by De Gea as West Ham looked for a winner.
Hammers boss Pellegrini felt Anthony Martial was offside as he ran through on goal before being upended inside the box by Ryan Fredericks.
Pogba, who eschewed his stuttering run-up in favour of a more traditional approach with both his penalties, netted the resulting spot-kick.
Pellegrini acknowledged the decisions that went in favour of United were close calls for referee Graham Scott and his assistants.
He said: “I’m frustrated of course because I think we deserved more. It was a pleasure to see the team playing the way we did against Manchester United in their own stadium.
“Unfortunately for us there were some decisions, they were very difficult so I am not complaining about him.
“But with VAR, I am sure we would win the game 1-0. Felipe Anderson was onside. It was not a penalty from Robert. The last goal from Man United was offside, the last pass. A few mistakes but the decisions went for United.”
Manchester United needed two Paul Pogba penalties to scrape home to a 2-1 win over desperately unlucky West Ham.
Old Trafford’s visitors fell behind in the first half when Robert Snodgrass clumsily felled Juan Mata – Pogba stepped up and swept United into a lead they barely deserved.
After the break the Hammers stepped things up and levelled through Felipe Anderson. After that they could easily have won it with Michail Antonio hammering the crossbar and David De Gea making a gravity-defying save from the same player’s header.
In the end, Ryan Fredericks’ brainless foul on Anthony Martial allowed Pogba the opportunity to drag United out of the fire, and he smashed in his second effort from 12 yards.
UNITED IN END OF SEASON MODE
At the beginning of another pivotal week, those basking in the Manchester sunshine watching this game may have been forgiven for thinking it was May, instead of April.
United have a mammoth European night to come on Tuesday in Barcelona and remain outsiders of the four teams looking to secure a top-four finish. And yet here they were, and have been in recent weeks, playing with the care-free attitude of a team who have nothing left to play for this season.
But it is one that is very much still alive, or it should be. So why are a team in the midst of their most critical phase playing so casually?
The ponderous Pogba is a large part of the problem as all United’s play goes through him – while Mata and Romelu Lukaku are hardly conduits to the speedy style United fans crave.
After an encouraging yet ultimately fruitless result in midweek against Barca, United were desperately in need here of a performance full of whim and vigour – to fire their Champions League chase back up, for both this season and next.
And yet, the visitors enjoyed 56 per cent of possession in the first half and will leave Old Trafford wondering how on earth they contrived to lose.
This was not a result or performance to fuel the imagination ahead of their clash in Catalonia.
Speaking of speed…
RASHFORD GETS A RUSH ON
As if to point out the blindingly obvious tentative and terse style of United’s play, the home side actually looked at their best when the pace and ingenuity of Marcus Rashford was introduced off the bench.
That came in the 55th minute and was not a substitute Solskjaer would have wanted to make if at all possible, with Tuesday in mind. The Wythenshawe wonderboy has played a lot of football under the Norwegian and he would surely have preferred to keep him wrapped up and ready to unleash on Barca.
But, by sticking him on the bench, Solskjaer was possibly also mindful of the fact he might need an injection of speed to spring United into life – and so it proved.
Rashford brought the Stretford End out of its slumber minutes after being introduced when he latched onto Chris Smalling’s through ball and unleashed a stinging shot that was saved superbly by Lukasz Fabianski – United’s clearest chance of the game.
He then sent a header over and, together with Mason Greenwood, helped United stretch West Ham at the back and regain some semblance of control after they equalised and threatened to take more than a point back to east London.
With Lukaku off and Martial moving centrally, it seemed to instantly reinvigorate United’s forward play.
It’s the way forward for midweek. United won’t get away with such a static start at the Camp Nou.
HAMMERS CAN NAIL DOWN SEVENTH
On this showing, as well as sporadic evidence throughout the season, there’s no reason why West Ham should not be in the hunt for seventh place.
In fact, they have legitimate reason to be the chasing pack’s No1 team. But their squad – both talented and top-heavy with luxury players – is the reason why they should, and also shouldn’t, be there.
Marko Arnautovic, Manuel Lanzini, Samir Nasri and Felipe Anderson are a terrific quartet of weaponry to have in your armoury, and yet trying to fit them all in the starting XI has been a conundrum Manuel Pellegrini has wrestled with throughout the campaign, and often to the detriment of the rest of his many unheralded stars.
Declan Rice – excellent at Old Trafford – has come from nowhere to establish himself as one of the finds of the season, Robert Snodgrass has reinvigorated his career at the London Stadium, while Pablo Zabaleta and Mark Noble continue to defy the critics and Father Time.
Pellegrini also wrestled with whether to keep or sell Arnautovic in January – the effervescent Austrian is as maddening as he is marvellous. He seemed happy to stay, much to the delight of the fans, and yet his performances since the turn of the year have clearly dipped.
He was left out of the squad here due to apparent illness. Perhaps the best thing was to allow him to leave after all.
Judging by the grit and guile on show at Old Trafford, inflated egos are no longer a luxury West Ham can afford to carry.