Why Eric Bailly holds the key to Manchester United's potential European success
Later tonight, Manchester United play what is arguably their biggest game so far this term. Jose Mourinho's men will host Sevilla, as the Red Devils will be hoping for yet another famous European night at Old Trafford.
In their most recent fixture, the Manchester club got one over on the old enemy; Liverpool. Two goals from Marcus Rashford got the hosts on their way before the typical Mourinho defensive-masterclass took place in the second-half. Jurgen Klopp's side just couldn't break down the bus, not conjuring a single shot on target, largely down to Eric Bailly's return.
The Ivory Coast international has been missing for a few months now, but on Saturday, he put in a colossal centre-half display, which was made even more impressive because he'll be nowhere near fully match-fit. Previously, I've written about just how badly United missed the former Villareal man, but I never really knew to what scale, until I watched the defensive horror-show that The Chuckle Brothers (aka Phil Jones and Chris Smalling), put in against Tottenham Hotspur just a month ago. Anyway, that's a story for another day...
Bailly was certainly the difference between United winning and losing the Premier League grudge match against Liverpool. Sure, he scored a rather unfortunate own-goal, but he didn't let that get him down. In fact, he was probably better from that point onward; wanting to ensure that his individual error didn't cost his side the points, whereas, if that were Smalling or Jones, their performance-levels would just drop further.
Now he'll be gearing himself up to play in his first Champions League knockout match for Manchester United, in a game that could well and truly shape their season.
Mourinho terms are built on having a stern, hard to beat back line. For that, you need players who are willing to put their body on the line, while commanding the defence vocally as well as physically. Bailly is tough in the tackle, more often than not times his challenges to absolute perfection, he's quick when the opponents are on the counter-attack and he's brilliant in the air.
We all know that United will sit back in any Champions League away game, but to ensure that tactic pays off, defensive mistakes have to be completely eradicated. Bailly's the master at making the right decision in the vital moments, and having him back there means the Red Devils can afford to play for draws away from home.
As I've previously touched upon, Bailly has to be good when the opposition is breaking on the counter. Sevilla has a supremely quick front-line, thankfully Bailly can win a footrace against the speediest attackers in the world which is a vital asset to have. He's multifunctional; meaning he can adjust his play to deal with different types of attackers. Be it a big-man like Gonzalo Higuain, or a quick-forward like Sergio Aguero, I'd put my money on Bailly winning any one-on-one battle.
Tonight, he'll have to stay fully focused for 90 minutes. Make no mistake, this will be a tough assignment for Mourinho and his players, but I fancy them to come through the test, and I feel much more confident now that the 'Ivorian Vidic' is back in the fold...