Manchester United secured their place back in the Champions League for next season with a comfortable 4-1 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford on Thursday night.
Heading into the contest requiring just a point to get themselves over the line, United, despite some iffy moments defensively in the first half, made light work of the struggling Londoners to wrap up a top four finish with a game to spare. Goals from Casemiro, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford either side of half-time capped off a relatively comfortable night’s work for Erik ten Hag’s side.
But despite the victory being enough to get them back into Europe’s premier club competition, it did come at a cost; Antony went off injured just before the half hour mark after being on the receiving end of a fair challenge from Trevoh Chalobah. He had to be carried off on a stretcher and was replaced by Rashford, who was back in the matchday squad after missing two games through injury and illness.
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Antony hit the turf in a great amount of discomfort and was evidently distraught. It immediately struck as being a serious injury and that was what Ten Hag described it as in his post-match press conference.
The Dutchman said: “Everyone has seen he came off. I can tell you that it’s serious but we have to wait a minimum 24 hours and then we know probably more about the status of his injury.”
Despite the severity of the Brazilian’s injury not yet being confirmed, early indications do not bode well ahead of Sunday’s Premier League finale against Fulham and next Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley. The former Ajax winger was an expected shoo-in to start against City after making the right-wing berth his own for much of this season.
However, if you cast your mind back to United’s last meeting with Pep Guardiola’s side – the 2-1 triumph at Old Trafford back in January – Antony started that game on the bench with Ten Hag selecting Fernandes to start on the right-wing. It was a masterstroke decision by the Dutchman as the stand-in captain produced an excellent performance to help United recover from a goal down to scoop all three points and the local bragging rights.
Explaining why Fernandes started out wide against City that January lunchtime, Ten Hag said: “The idea with Bruno on the right-wing and especially in defending, we defended as usual but in possession he had a role to come in between the lines to bring an extra player there and bring the opponent problems and create hesitation and confusion and I thought he played that role brilliantly.
“The rest of the team adapted well to the situation and we had really good breaks by finding the free man. Bruno was an important factor in that role and important in the pressing as well.
“I didn’t know he was Man of the Match but he was my Man of the Match, definitely.”
It was not the first time that Fernandes had started on the right this season and nor was it the last. He most recently started on the right-wing for the 1-0 win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford last month, in which he scored the game’s only goal.
Fernandes has proven he is more than capable of operating out wide, demonstrating that he has the tactical understanding to fulfil the role, in both offensive and defensive situations. He rarely refuses to track back and that was evident against City in January.
That quality could be crucial against Guardiola’s troops again next weekend. He suits the role brilliantly and that extra degree of willingness to defend against a team like City could make all the difference.
Antony, as much as United would love to have him available, is less keen to track back and support his full-back, though that is to be expected for a player that loves to run in the opposite direction so much. On this occasion, however, Fernandes could be the perfect replacement, even if it will mean further tinkering in central-midfield.