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Football Whispers
 By Musa Okwonga

Juan Mata stars for Manchester United in late win vs. Watford

After their exhilarating win over Arsenal at the weekend, Manchester United proceeded past Watford in much more prosaic fashion, Juan Mata claiming the game's only goal in a 1-0 victory for the home side.

Watford were excellent for most of the match and will regret not scoring on at least three occasions -- a profligacy for which they were punished by the contest's outstanding player. Mata, captaining United for the first time, was a constant source of creativity, urging his mostly lacklustre teammates onward and eventually taking the initiative himself.

He curled the ball over the wall with seven minutes to go, only a few minutes after manager Louis van Gaal had bizarrely been toying with the idea of his removal. This triumph, remarkably, takes United level on points with Manchester City in fourth place, and after the winter that this club has had, that is no mean achievement. The Van Gaal era, which so many thought might come to a premature close, rolls forward.

Player ratings: (1-10; 10= best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK David De Gea, 7 -- Superb when called upon in the first half to deny Watford when the game was still goalless. Distributed the ball well as ever.

DF Guillermo Varela, 6 -- Never truly found his rhythm and was oddly conservative with both his movement and his passing in the early stages, though he improved in the second half.

DF Daley Blind, 5 -- On a night when he was the team's senior defender, he passed the ball out from the back with alarming inaccuracy, endangering his team's goal on more than one occasion.

DF Marcos Rojo, 6 -- A reasonable performance, where his distribution could have been better but his sharpness in closing down his man kept a very good forward line at bay.

DF Tim Fosu-Mensah, 6 -- What he did well, he did brilliantly -- he denied Odion Ighalo with an exceptional slide tackle in the first half, he played the ball out calmly from the back, and he clattered into one (excellent) challenge with such force that his shinpad came off. Yet he also betrayed a certain rashness, bundling his man down for a needless yellow card and then being very lucky to escape with a poor attempt at a clearance in injury time. Much to learn, but the talent is evident and abundant.

MF Morgan Schneiderlin, 7 -- A typically industrious night, where his passing was not at its most precise but he provided useful obstruction to a hard-pressing Watford midfield.

MF Ander Herrera, 7 -- Sharp and hard-working throughout, one of the few United players who consistently took the game to the visitors. At the heart of the best of his team's moves.

MF Juan Mata, 9 -- A fine performance from the captain, capped by a terrific free-kick to claim the three points for his team. Orchestrated the game from start to finish with clever reverse-passes and turns into space, spreading the play and even tackling back. His second stellar showing in a week.

Juan Mata struck late to give Man United a boost in their quest for Champions League football next season.
Juan Mata struck late to give Man United a boost in their quest for Champions League football next season.

MF Anthony Martial, 6 -- Took a long time to get into the match, missing two presentable half-chances, and when he did so it was his elegant dribble that earned the match-winning free-kick for Mata. Clearly lacking match-sharpness, but still dangerous.

MF Memphis Depay, 6 -- An important game for him, since though some of his runs did not come off and his shooting was wayward, he did not allow his head to drop. Instead, he made an important defensive contribution, particularly in the late stages, and ultimately played his part in this win.

FW Marcus Rashford, 8 -- A performance of notable maturity. He was not merely enthusiastic in his pressing from the very first whistle, he was highly intelligent with it. He was judicious in his use of the ball, knowing when to lay it off with a first-time pass to maintain the speed of the counter-attack or surge with it towards the byline. A night when he confirmed that he is far more than a goalscorer.


MF Jesse Lingard, NR -- Replaced Herrera in the 77th minute. Typically hard-working in the late stages, playing with high intensity and producing a solid defensive effort.

DF Matteo Darmian, 5 -- On for Rojo with 20 minutes to go. An erratic cameo from a man who started the season as perhaps United's most consistent player, losing his man as soon as he came on and then escaping a penalty award for holding back Sebastian Prodl.

DF Paddy McNair, NR -- Replaced Mata in the 89th minute. Came on too late to contribute substantially to the game.

Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.


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