Opinion: Put some respect on Eric Bailly's name
Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire scored the goals, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bruno Fernandes earned the assists, while Odion Ighalo made his debut, yet Eric Bailly is the man we need to talk about.
Allow this to sink in.
Prior to United's 2-0 win over Chelsea, the defender had not played a competitive match in 295 days, dating all the way back to an Old Trafford meeting with the Blues on 28 April 2019.
In the time since then, United played 41 matches across all competitions.
Harry Maguire was signed from Leicester City and made club captain.
Another centre-back, Axel Tuanzebe, was recalled from loan to challenge for places.
Even Brexit was completed.
Yet, throughout this time, Bailly remained bullish and quietly went about his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury, dreaming about his return.
With Victor Lindelof out ill, Eric's long-awaited comeback was completed on Monday when he was thrust into the starting XI by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Playing against a vibrant Chelsea side in a fixture of great significance, it’s fair to say his performance at Stamford Bridge was nothing short of heroic.
Granted, the Ivorian made a shaky start, which was understandable, but he swiftly recovered to produce a commanding display.
His appearance was one that reminded everybody of his undoubted quality.
Footage of Bailly tackling Michy Batshuayi in the United penalty area, performing a confident dummy and quickly driving up the pitch went viral on social media, as supporters relished his return from injury.
That wasn’t his only stand-out moment in west London, either.
After 73 minutes, with United 2-0 up but defending against a resurgent Chelsea attack, Mateo Kovacic found himself through on goal and seemingly with acres of space to unleash his shot.
Little did he know that Bailly was steaming towards him, ready to execute a perfectly timed sliding tackle that sent the ball flying into the stand.
It was classic Eric Bailly and a perfect example of why the centre-back, known for his physicality, remains so popular among fans.
“He was absolutely fantastic,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “Eric’s a top defender and it’s his first game since we played Chelsea last year in the league, in April. His block on Kovacic was out-of-this-world defending. He’s quick, he’s strong and is as brave as a lion. It’s great to have him back.”
Speaking to the journalist Andy Mitten after the final whistle, Bailly admitted to feeling nervous about his return to action in such a big game – but also explained he has been itching to return.
“It’s not easy when you don’t play for so long,” Eric told the fanzine editor. “But it only gets easier by playing games. I have been telling the manager that I want to play. I’ve been working hard after a bad, long, injury. I’ve been ready to play for a week and told the manager that.
“I took a few minutes to settle when the game started. I was nervous, if I’m honest after so long away, because it was almost a year when I was injured against Chelsea, but then things went okay. I felt the support from my team-mates and my manager which is important.”
Eric Bailly won 4/4 defensive aerial duels vs. Chelsea, no player on the pitch won more.— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) February 17, 2020
An imperious return. 👌👌👌 pic.twitter.com/IvWJP0XrXp
Bailly’s performance on Monday night underlined his value to the team and, with Lindelof currently out with illness, and Tuanzebe still injured, the 25-year-old is clearly in line for more chances, with Thursday’s Europa League tie against Club Brugge providing another opportunity to shine.
The Ivory Coast international appreciates the faith that Ole is displaying in him and recently spoke about a desire to repay the club’s decision to extend his contract.
“Through all the tough times I've had, the club has always shown a lot of faith in me,” he told us.
“And, as part of that show of confidence, they have given me this contract extension. So I need to be thankful for the confidence that they have shown in me, thankful and ready to give my best."
That mission was obvious against Chelsea and, if he can remain injury free, while producing a consistent run of performances, then Eric Bailly could have a significant role to play at United.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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