“We don’t have Real Madrid in the Premier League. We have top teams in the Premier League, but they are different teams, teams with different qualities.”
Those were perhaps the relieved words of José Mourinho, after he saw his Manchester United side get outclassed by Los Blancos in the UEFA Super Cup final in Skopje. And he is right; there are no English clubs that can come close to the Spanish, European and world champions at present.
And last night’s performance will certainly be enough to remind Mourinho and those United supporters idly dreaming of a quick return to European supremacy that there remains a long road ahead for that to become a reality.
The dangers of reading too much into what is essentially a glorified friendly are fairly obvious, but one thing is clear: although there have been signs of improvement under Mourinho and the Reds might well go on to mount a serious Premier League title challenge, there is still work to do if United want to be a formidable force in Europe.
For large parts of this encounter, Zinedine Zidane’s Real side were, in all departments bar goalkeeping, the much better side. There were times that United simply could not win the ball from Madrid’s midfield, with man of the match Isco finding space that couldn’t have existed.
Toni Kroos, one of the finest German players of his generation, brings balance, calmness and drive to the centre of the park. Casemiro, often criminally overlooked by former Real boss Rafa Benitez but highly valued by Zidane, brings defensive solidity and scored the first here, despite being marginally offside. Luka Modric was sublime as always. And all this before anyone goes on to talk about Real’s exalted attack.
Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard may have covered more ground than the opposition, but no amount of running could have stopped this result. This was Real Madrid, not Ajax in the Europa League final.
When Real had the ball at their feet, they used it far better, not giving away possession cheaply like United did too often at crucial spells. And they did it without their best player on the pitch, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo only coming on to the pitch with eight minutes remaining on the clock.
It was not until midway through the second half that United started to improve, although only after Isco had sliced open the defence with a masterfully worked one-two with Gareth Bale, sliding the ball past David de Gea with ease.
Romelu Lukaku’s first competitive United goal came ten minutes after he had fluffed his lines in front of goal, squandering a relatively easy chance, but made amends by sidefooting home after Keylor Navas had spilled Matic’s fierce, driven effort.
Mourinho’s substitutions had proved effective. Marcus Rashford brought what Lingard didn’t in attack, which was pace and directness to the left flank. By pinning Dani Carvajal back, Mourinho ensured that Real would be kept on their heels by Rashford’s unpredictability.
Marouane Fellaini’s introduction as a floating target man also turned the game in United’s favour in the second period. Partnering fellow countryman Lukaku in the final third, the pair gave Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane a different problem to deal with.
He played a key part in United’s goal, working hard and retrieving a lost cause, holding off Carvajal with his upper body strength before laying it to Rashford in the build-up. Despite being felled late on after a clash of heads with Ramos, Fellaini got straight back up and continued causing problems, with one of his world-class chest traps followed by an aerial flick.
And the Reds could have easily taken the game into extra time, but Rashford failed to hit the back of the net, with Navas’ outstretched leg guiding the ball wide of the right-hand post when the man from Wythenshawe had been played through by Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
But an equaliser would surely have papered over some very obvious cracks. The centre of defence still looks to be a problem, and it was clear that United missed the presence of Eric Bailly. Victor Lindelöf is still settling into life in Manchester and did well on his competitive debut, but with Chris Smalling alongside him, you sensed that the defence could be easily breached with one well-worked move.
Real Madrid were worthy winners in the Macedonian capital, and showed that Spanish clubs are now football’s pre-eminent force, after all, they have won eight of the last nine Super Cups and on the evidence of Tuesday night, that looks set to continue for some time.
As for the Reds, there is still a lot of work ahead for Mourinho, but they will certainly take plenty of positives from this performance. The progression is there for all to see and if would be a massive surprise if United failed to mount a serious title challenge in the Premier League. On the other hand, European dominance looks to be as far away as it was already.