MANCHESTER, England — Three points from Manchester United’s 2-0 win vs. Hull in the EFL Cup semifinal first leg on Tuesday.
1. Mata is decisive again
Manchester United are one step from Wembley Stadium thanks to a comfortable first-leg win, which was secured by goals from Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini.
Mata’s strike, his seventh of the season, once again highlighted his importance to manager Jose Mourinho’s team, while substitute Fellaini’s late header prompted a touchline bear hug with his manager and gave United control of the tie ahead of the second leg at the KCom Stadium on Jan. 26.
When Mourinho took charge at Old Trafford last summer, Mata was deemed to be one of the most likely victims of a clear-out by the new boss, who sold him to United for £37.1 million when in charge of Chelsea in January 2014.
At Stamford Bridge, Mata simply did not fit in under Mourinho, who regarded the former Valencia midfielder as too slow and lightweight for his powerful team. Mata’s game has not changed in the time since, but despite that, Mourinho has given the player a second chance, which has been repaid this season.
It is true that the Spaniard has completed 90 minutes just once, but he has nonetheless accepted the challenge; the fact that January has arrived with no speculation surrounding his future underlines how both men have put the past behind them.
Without Mata’s strike, it would have been an edgy night for United, who saw Wayne Rooney go close to breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time club scoring record early in the second half. As it was, the opener gave the hosts a platform from which they doubled their lead with three minutes left, through Fellaini’s far-post header from Matteo Darmian’s cross.
2. Silva makes progress but Hull have it all to do
Marco Silva was under no illusions as to the size of his task as Hull City manager after succeeding the sacked Mike Phelan last week, admitting it may take a “miracle” to keep the club in the Premier League.
But after two games in charge — an FA Cup third-round win against Swansea and this EFL Cup defeat against United — Silva appears to have already made a difference to his team that will give them, if nothing else, a fighting chance of top-flight survival.
Even with only one fit centre-half against United, Hull looked solid and organised, frustrating the home side for long periods until Mata scored to break the deadlock in the 56th minute.
Silva looks to have given Hull more shape after less than a week on the training ground, but the Portuguese coach will know that the doggedness displayed by his players not only needs to continue but also must be allied with a sharper cutting edge further forward.
Hull have a daunting run of league fixtures ahead. After Saturday’s clash at home with Bournemouth, Hull travel to Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal and host Manchester City. Even with a fully fit squad, Silva would be working wonders if Hull were able to get anything from their encounters with top-six opponents.
But if he can build on the initial improvements, then Hull may just have some hope left by the time Burnley arrive at the KCom Stadium on Feb. 25.
3. No need for a two-legged semifinal
English football does not help itself sometimes, and the staging of this two-legged EFL Cup semifinal offered another example of how the game is in danger of overexposure, both on and off the pitch.
Considering this was Hull’s first appearance in the last four of the League Cup, the fact that only 1,500 supporters made the 120-mile journey from East Yorkshire was a sad indictment of the format of the competition. Football supporters in England have just come through the packed Christmas fixture schedule and FA Cup third-round weekend, so finances will have been stretched well before this tie came around.
But aside from the cost to fans, it seems nonsensical to play two games at this stage of the competition when it would make much more sense to have a one-off tie at a neutral venue. Had this game been played at Anfield, the Etihad Stadium or Hillsborough, the ground would most likely have been full, just as Wednesday’s Southampton vs. Liverpool tie could have been played at Villa Park or the Emirates.
England remains the last major league not to have a midseason break, and while that anomaly is unlikely to change anytime soon, cramming a two-legged semifinal into the January schedule seems so outdated.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_