Manchester United didn’t just need to keep up the pace at Watford on Tuesday, they needed to make a statement. And, thanks in large part to Ashley Young, they did exactly that in storming to a 4-2 win in the first of two huge tests on the road in the space of four days.
With Arsenal to come at the Emirates on Saturday, Jose Mourinho will have been looking for three points however they came at Vicarage Road, but a more convincing performance than the one which saw United edge past Brighton at the weekend was in order to persuade the wider world that they have what it takes to deal with a title race right through to May.
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Manchester City’s huge lead has so far been built with something of a swagger, and a string of stumbling displays by their neighbours had only helped to accentuate the gap in quality.
For 70 minutes or more in Hertfordshire on Tuesday, United delivered their best football of the season, and when Watford came storming back late on, the Reds still had enough to put the game to bed with a Jesse Lingard wonder-goal.
It was Young who did much of the damage against the club with which he spent his formative footballing years. First, he rifled home superbly in minimal space after Lingard had squared from the centre, finding the slightest of gaps at Heurelho Gomes’ near post to put United ahead.
Within six minutes he had helped himself to another, whipping home a delightful free-kick after Paul Pogba had been hauled back by Abdoulaye Doucoure. So stunning was Young’s finish that even Mourinho was agog on the United bench.
The manager would be celebrating further within seven minutes as Anthony Martial swept home from Romelu Lukaku’s pass to put the result beyond doubt.
Martial dazzled throughout as United were handed increased space by Marco Silva’s side but it was Young who had done the hard work to get them into a winning position.
He might have had his strike on Saturday handed to the unwitting Lewis Dunk but his brace here was a fair reward for his excellent form this term.
One of the reasons Mourinho has found it so easy to switch between his regular back four and the 3-4-1-2 shape he used here is the quality of Young on the left side. At a club with various options at left-back or left wing-back, the 32-year-old has made the spot his to lose.
As Mourinho enthused afterwards, "At his age, Young's playing better than ever and I couldn't be more happy with him."
It is a renaissance which has led him back into the England team six months shy of a World Cup and, more importantly from a United perspective, helped stabilise a position which his manager has had trouble filling since taking charge in 2016.
It wasn't to be plain sailing in the latter stages for United, though. Troy Deeney pulled one back from the spot with 13 minutes to go after a clumsy Marcos Rojo challenge, and Doucoure lashed home a second to raise the Hornets' hopes.
But the visitors answered superbly as Lingard picked the ball up 70 yards from goal and set off on a sensational run before driving home from 18 yards.
This one ended up being far more of a thriller than Mourinho will have liked but for the large majority of the game they were dominant, and indeed had Lukaku buried a straight-forward chance shortly before Deeney's goal then it would have had the more one-sided scoreless to suit the evening's general narrative.
"The second half should have been five or 6-0, it was easier to score than the first," Mourinho pointed out. "We missed chances. Out of nothing, they got a penalty for 3-1, then it was a different game. It was an easy match to win comfortably. At 3-2, the game is in the balance then Jesse Lingard had the initiative to kill the game.
"Both him and Ashley Young scored great goals. We missed 4-0 with some actions and Romelu Lukaku had an open goal, Paul Pogba had a free header too. They were full of confidence after, they had nothing to lose could play the way they do and got back into the game. We should be smoking cigars but then were in trouble."
Not often enough this season have United held such a stranglehold for so long in a fixture, though, and they have had to rely on their often superior stamina to pocket plenty of late goals.
So, in a big week, this was a big win. If they pull off the unlikely over the rest of this season and haul back neighbours City, this was the night the comeback truly started.