MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts from Old Trafford as Man United were forced to settle for a 0-0 draw at home to struggling Hull.
1. Damaging draw for below-par United
Manchester United have had few more painful days this season. Even as they stretched their unbeaten league run to 14 games, they still find themselves up four points adrift of fifth place and facing an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League.
One Manchester side scored four goals on Wednesday night but that was City, at West Ham, while United played what was, in theory, the easiest game of the season, a home date with the bottom club. But Hull displayed great resilience and secured an unexpected point that could have been an even more improbable win had Lazar Markovic done better than hitting the post in the 86th minute.
Fortune favoured United then, and also looked kindly on Hull in one other respect. Already booked for a foul on Marcos Rojo, Oumar Niasse planted his studs into Michael Carrick's knee but somehow stayed on the field. His continued participation was all the more remarkable when he later scythed down Daley Blind. Marco Silva eventually substituted the striker to spare him a seemingly imminent red card.
Niasse nonetheless lasted longer than one of his victims. Carrick had played many of the more incisive passes in the first half but nevertheless made way at the break, replaced by Wayne Rooney as United adopted more attacking tactics. Yet Old Trafford was flat for the most part, seemingly under the assumption United would win. Instead this joins games against Stoke and Burnley on the list of their most frustrating draws of the campaign. They failed to gel, fashioned too few golden chances and saw their chance-conversion rate deteriorate still further.
United have already recorded more shots on target than in the entirety of last season, a sign of how dull they were under Louis van Gaal, but they have barely outscored relegation-threatened Crystal Palace. Profligacy has been a problem.
Marcus Rashford, United's match-winner against Hull in August, almost reprised that role but rolled a shot narrowly wide. Eldin Jakupovic made a brilliant close-range save from the substitute Juan Mata and twice denied Paul Pogba. The goalkeeper was excellent, like many of his defensive colleagues and unlike most of United's more progressive players.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan had one of his quieter matches in midfield. The Stretford End had chorused Anthony Martial's name as he warmed up but Jose Mourinho did not bring him on, partly because he had to make a defensive change when Phil Jones came off injured, providing a concern after his fine recent form.
2. Ibrahimovic waits to join the "20 Club"
Mourinho is setting out to achieve feats that eluded David Moyes and Van Gaal and right now, he's perilously close to one. Neither of his ill-fated predecessors had a player score 20 United goals in a season for him.
Robin van Persie, who got 30 in Sir Alex Ferguson's final campaign, is the last to reach the 20-goal barrier. Zlatan Ibrahimovic habitually hits that mark, managing at least 20 in each of his last nine seasons. This will surely prove to be a 10th but he has remained marooned on 19 for three games now, which qualifies as a drought having scored 13 in the previous 13.
Ibra did threaten to get the increasingly elusive 20th goal in his own inimitable fashion. He drew a terrific save from Jakupovic with a 25-yard shot that seemed bound for the top corner. He combined with Pogba, his favourite sidekick, only for the Hull goalkeeper made a similarly good stop. Ibrahimovic had improvised an inventive back-heel to release the Frenchman but having demonstrated his typically terrific technique, it betrayed him a quarter of an hour later as, uncharacteristically, he missed his kick when trying an audacious volley at a ball over the top.
There was a further sense that all was not well when he seemed to throw himself to the ground to try and win a penalty. Referee Mike Jones was not moved and Mourinho was not happy but without scoring, Ibrahimovic found another way of hurting Hull.
The big striker has a willingness to try and rattle defenders, and not always legally. His first involvement with Harry Maguire was to shove the Hull centre-back into goalkeeper Jakupovic, who landed awkwardly. Ibrahimovic protested his innocence but others, Maguire included, were not convinced. Ultimately, though, it was they who could savour the evening.
3. Silva lining to Hull's difficult season
Few Premier League managers have been dealt a worse hand than Silva, but he seems to be making the most of it. He is the only manager to beat Mourinho in United's last 20 games; now he has added a deserved draw against his fellow Portuguese.
It is all the more admirable as his seems the most thankless of tasks. The January transfer window departures of Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore suggested Hull are in a fire sale, while injuries to Ryan Mason and Curtis Davies further restricted his options. Partly because of their progress to the semifinals of the EFL Cup, the fixture list is unfriendly in the extreme and this was the sixth game of an eight-game sequence in which Hull face United three times plus Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. They are four points from safety and could be further adrift before they face easier opponents.
At the moment, the odds are stacked against them but a team who looked doomed at the end of Mike Phelan's reign have renewed hope, courtesy of their precocious manager.
Training-ground work was apparent in Hull's organisation on Wednesday night. They needed to be well-drilled as United probed and prodded. Yet the visitors kept them at arm's length, usually restricting them to shots from distance. It is testament to Silva's work and he has already endeared himself to the fans judging by the frequency with which they chanted his name.
Yet Silva has a rival for a place in their affections. Maguire's growing fondness for solo runs is making him a cult favourite, as well as a target for more ambitious clubs. At least the centre-back stayed in January while another joined. Andrea Ranocchia, loaned from Inter Milan, came off the bench as Silva reinforced his defence for the last quarter. It was further proof of his prowess as a strategist.
Perhaps Silva will find salvation in Hull's January trading, much of which comprised of borrowing. Midfielder Alfred N'Diaye and winger Kamil Grosicki were not registered in time to feature here but their debuts could come against Liverpool on Saturday. Once again, Hull will be outsiders but they showed that underdogs can have their day.