The Curse of Rhine-Westphalia
Manchester United v CSKA Moscow in the Champions League at Old Trafford was referred to as a dead rubber match in the buildup, although that was just from a United perspective. Several things happened in the ‘meaningless' encounter. One didn’t.
The Red Devils could only cede their status as Group A winners by suffering a defeat greater than four goals. On the other hand CSKA Moscow could advance to the knockout rounds in more plausible circumstances. Progression would be achieved if Viktor Goncharenko’s side won by three, or by any margin should Basel fail to win. If Jose Mourinho couldn’t motivate his side to protect its 14-month unbeaten run at Old Trafford, or perhaps rotated youngsters into his starting XI, who knew?
Mourinho did motivate his team. He did not start Scott McTominay or Axel Tuanzebe, though both saw action. Daley Blind and Luke Shaw were given starts. So was Ander Herrera.
Despite the strong line-up thrown at them CSKA was helped by the woodwork early. Then they stunned the hosts with a strike as half-time loomed. Vitinho’s shot caromed in off Alan Dzagoev’s back. If it had been dodgeball the Russian would have been eliminated rather than credited with scoring.
Still, the Muscovites’ hopes were short-lived. Shortly after the hour Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford beat Igor Akinfeev a minute apart. United’s home dominance continued.
Two other less desirable streaks died. Lukaku’s four-game goal drought ended. Rashford’s goal was his first in ten.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the match, however, was that another unfortunate spell showed no sign of abating. Henrikh Mkhitaryan remains in Mourinho’s bad books. The Armenian did not even dress for the game.
The United boss has been brutally honest in the press regarding Mkhitaryan’s status. He says he believes in the midfielder’s talent, but that the player had been “disappearing” in recent matches. As though he were David Copperfield. The Portuguese made a show of dropping the player.
Seemingly, a dead rubber game would be the ideal time to give a struggling squad member another chance. United’s group winner status was virtually assured. If Mkhi “disappeared” again, no harm done.
Mourinho apparently didn’t see it that way. Considering Mkhitaryan wasn’t even among the reserves, it isn’t likely he will feature in the Manchester Derby on the weekend. Perhaps the boss remembers how poorly he played in the fixture last year.
Why the Armenian has struggled so mightily in red, save for one brilliant stretch to begin this season, defies logic. He has exquisite control with the ball at his feet. He has vision. He can finish. He did all those things in abundance with Borussia Dortmund before Mourinho signed him.
Maybe that is the problem.
Dortmund has been among the most exciting teams in football for the last decade. Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel distilled a perfect blend of youth, speed, and technical ability. The side won two Bundesliga crowns. It reached a Champions League final.
Along the way, other clubs began raiding BvB for talent. Barring two subpar seasons, including the current campaign, die Borussen rolled on. Yet, players sold regularly failed to perform well for their new teams.
Mario Goetze bombed out for Bayern. Shinji Kagawa couldn’t crack United’s weak (at the time) midfield. Nuri Sahin was lost at Real Madrid. Ilkay Gundogan and Ousmane Dembele have been injured at Manchester City and Barcelona respectively. Only Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels have had success after leaving the Westfalenstadion, and Hummels was actually a Bayern player being reclaimed.
That Goetze, Kagawa, and Sahin have all played well since rejoining Dortmund also defies logic. It’s as though there is a curse that prevents Dortmund players from thriving anywhere other than in Rhine-Westphalia, or in colours other than Yellow and Black.
If such a curse exists, and as a somewhat irrational human being, I'm not ruling it out, it does not bode well for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Christian Pulisic’s ambitions. There is hope for Mkhitaryan, though. If he and his agent can negotiate a return to BvB, he may be able to salvage his career.
The rumour mill already has Mourinho in the hunt for Mesut Ozil. If United can sell Mkhitaryan back to Dortmund, minimising the loss from a failed investment, the struggling German side might benefit from a veteran presence. United will have partial payment for Mkhitaryan’s replacement, and room in the squad. It’s an equitable exchange.
You hate to be impatient, or write off an obvious talent, but United requires maximum output from its entire squad to catch City or advance deep into the Champions League. Patience is a luxury it can’t afford.
Some things can’t be explained. How does Donald Trump’s comb-over defy the laws of physics? Why is Arsenal’s single most promising talent always chronically injured? Is there a reason Dortmund players rarely perform well after moving on? These are mysteries modern society's advanced knowledge and technological abilities still cannot solve. Maybe it’s time for Manchester United to simply accept the situation and part ways with Henrikh Mkhitaryan before irreparable damage is done to both parties.