Manchester United grabbed all 3 points on a comfortable night against FC Basel in their opening game of the group stages in the Champions League. Bouncing back from the draw in midweek against Stoke, there were plenty of positives to glean from United’s win on Tuesday despite the obvious glaring negative – which stood out like a sore thumb, whose impact may be much harsher than a sore thumb.
So here’s my thoughts touching on some of the talking points of United’s facile 3-0 victory in Mourinho’s first Champions League game for the Red Devils.
1. Victor Lindelof is clearly very good on the ball but not the finished article yet
Victor Lindelof made his first competitive start for Manchester United on the big stage in the Champions League on Tuesday night. The Swedish center-half, although used to the competition having played in it for his previous club Benfica, settled down rather gradually as the clock ticked. And once he found his feet, the 22-year old did not look back.
Never shy of bringing the ball out from the back, Lindelof often initiated attacking moves with assurance and in doing so, he often bypassed the midfield – to find spaces in the final third himself allowing a midfielder to run into the box and support Romelu Lukaku.
His passing range and timing was unmistakably at a higher-than-ordinary level with the Swede completing 75 passes with an accuracy of 93%. But it remains to be seen, whether that can be translated week in week out in a faster and physically more demanding league.
But Lindelof’s composed debut, was somehow, not surprising at all, as in one of my earlier interviews primarily discussing the player, his qualities on the ball and a nickname that hints at his core personality trait, were all on display in his maiden appearance for United. Alongside the often fiery Eric Bailly, it is hard to imagine the ice cool Lindelof not forming a formidable partnership to earn the pair – a new song of ice and fire.
2. Fellaini is as important as any at Manchester United
When we zoom out and look back on Fellaini’s career at Manchester United as a whole – it is possible to recall the many important goals that the Belgian has played a part in – either by scoring or being a nuisance in the box helping another teammate to score.
The Belgian, signed by David Moyes on the deadline day of United’s worst transfer window in recent memory has been utilized to his maximum potential only in the last two years to be precise and the dynamic he brings to the side when used in the right manner is irreplaceable, in some ways.
Scoring in the semi-finals of the victorious FA Cup campaign under Louis van Gaal, Marouane Fellaini replicated the feat in both the League cup and the Europa League – scoring vital goals at crucial moments in the last four – helping Manchester United win three trophies in the last two seasons.
His relationship with Jose Mourinho is even stronger which is reflected on the gratitude he pays through his goals and performances consistent with the best of his abilities. In addition to scoring the opening goal – converting an inch-perfect cross looped towards the back post, Fellaini marshalled that midfield proving his worth in both the boxes while also providing the ideal support to Nemanja Matic, whose importance at the club has steadily increased.
3. Pogba’s absence could hurt United in the short-term
All that was well, did not end well. Paul Pogba’s injury mid-way through the first half looked innocuous until he hobbled off clutching his hamstring before entering the tunnel – not only overshadowed a positive result but also poses genuine questions as to how it could impact United’s strong start in the league.
The injury comes at a time when United are right in the middle of a fixture congestion with 5 games coming up in the space of two weeks. Paul Pogba has enjoyed a brilliant start to his campaign and the last thing he would have wanted was his momentum brought to a screeching and abrupt halt, whose implications will likely be felt in the coming weeks.
Even Jose Mourinho, the master manipulator, could not hide his discontent at the unfortunate injury in the post match interview where his defiance lacked the usual conviction. The Portuguese manager said,
“I don’t know. I just know from experience it’s a muscular injury. Squads are for this, squads are for injuries, squads are for suspensions. We don’t cry with injuries. So if no Paul for Sunday, we have Herrera, we have Carrick, we have Fellaini and we have Matic.”
Mourinho does have other midfielders at his disposal to make up the numbers but it will be foolish to assume that they could do anything more than merely soften the blow.