Marouane Fellaini and Manchester United are focused on climbing the Premier League standings after edging through to the Champions League knockout phase with a match to spare.
Tuesday night appeared to be going the same way as Saturday’s tepid 0-0 draw with struggling Crystal Palace, with the Old Trafford faithful growing impatient as their side toiled against Young Boys.
But Fellaini saved their blushes in stoppage time to secure a 1-0 win that propelled United into the round of 16 with a match to spare thanks to next month’s opponents Valencia losing at Juventus in the other Group H match.
Early progress means Mourinho’s men can increase their focus on turning around their poor league form, with Saturday’s trip to embattled Southampton looking like the perfect opportunity to claw back the gap to the top four.
“I think the mood is good,” Fellaini said after his goalscoring heroics.
“The players are happy, but the most important thing now is to focus on Saturday and three points.
“It’s always difficult to come back from the national team. Now we have a full week of training. All the players are ready to compete and start Saturday.
“Criticism is part of football, but we have to work. We are a team, we are together, and give everything too. Together we have to move forward and take the points.”
Manchester United’s rollercoaster season lurches on and into the Champions League on Tuesday as they welcome Young Boys to Old Trafford.
After a miserable result and performance against Crystal Palace at the weekend, there is not much cheer swirling around Sir Matt Busby Way as Red Devils fans become increasingly disillusioned with life under Jose Mourinho.
However, a win against the Swiss side would go some way to booking their spot in the knockout phase of the competition.
Ahead of a game which Mourinho and United enter under yet more strain and pressure, we analyse the talking points.
IS THE AXE REALLY BEING SHARPENED?
As increasingly closer as he seems to be to getting the boot, it’s just as likely in reality that Mourinho might not really be that close at all to the Old Trafford exit door.
Yes, there is clearly not a lot of trust in the manager, whether you’re talking about the majority of players or higher up, for example when it comes to investment – Ed Woodward made that very clear when he failed to back his man in the summer transfer market. But Woodward is a marketing man and unlikely to pull the trigger while money-making United remain in the money-spinning Champions League.
Of course, if United were to drop out in the group stage, then there would honestly be no logical reason to keep the Portuguese in power.
But they play host to Group H whipping boys Young Boys on Tuesday – and the reverse leg in Switzerland to kick-off the tournament was arguably United’s most ruthless performance of this season.
They do face a daunting trip to Valencia on the final matchday but Los Che go to Turin on Tuesday and defeat there, coupled with a Red Devils’ win in Manchester, means United will be in the knockout stages and that makes it devilishly difficult to sack the manager.
THEATRE OF NIGHTMARES
Speaking of formalities, just because they beat Young Boys black and blue in Bern on matchday one, is no indication of how this encounter is going to go.
This is United’s worst start to a Premier League season in 28 years and what was previously a fortress in Old Trafford, has become a fallacy in recent times.
United’s record at home in all competitions this season reads: won three, drawn three, lost three. When you consider the visitors to the Theatre of Dreams have been Leicester, Tottenham, Wolves, Championship Derby, Valencia, Newcastle, Juventus, Everton and Crystal Palace, it’s readily apparent how much of a nightmare the fans are living.
OK, so Juve and Spurs are top-class sides, who absolutely strolled to their respective 1-0 and 3-0 victories. Meanwhile, Newcastle arrived with confidence rock bottom following a failure to win any of their opening eight games to start the 2018/19 season, yet the home side needed a stirring and, sadly these days, alien fightback to earn a 90th-minute win.
They almost rescued themselves from embarrassment against Frank Lampard’s visiting Rams in the League Cup third round. But after Marouane Fellaini’s 95th minute equaliser extended the game to extra time, Derby deservedly prevailed on penalties.
So, while they might think they’re coming up against the masters on Tuesday, there is much to cheer and little to lose for Young Boys.
NOT SO SHAW
Young players and their development (or lack, thereof) has always been a stick used to beat Mourinho with.
And before the Palace game, some bizarre comments made by the manager surfaced.
“Luke Shaw. When I got here two years ago, the boy didn’t even know how to compete. Great potential, yes, but he doesn’t know how to compete.
“And when we talk about Luke Shaw, about Martial, about Lingard, about Marcus Rashford, we’re talking about boys with great potential but who still are lacking – a word I can’t say but you like to say a lot – having that. They’re lacking a bit of this.”
Now, we are all aware how words can be misconstrued and lines buried in backs of interviews are twisted to contort the true narrative of conversations.
But why Mourinho felt the need to thrust Shaw into any potentially damaging limelight is hard to fathom given his gargantuan progress.
He has been United’s best player of the season so far, by a distance, form that has returned him to the England team. It is both encouraging and hugely impressive given he was arguably predicted to be first out of the door in the summer.
Yes, he’s lacked focus and discipline at various stages over the last four-and-a-half years. But he revealed in September that his double leg fracture three years prior almost resulted in amputation, so it’s hard to rationalise how difficult that road back must have been.
His manager could not have asked more of him this term, so the fact he seems to be doing exactly that is baffling.
Despite having plenty of possession, United struggled to break down the visitors’ defence, and were perhaps lucky not to concede any goals on the counter, as Palace had some of the game’s best chances.
Here’s a look at how the players rated.
David De Gea 7 – Saved United’s blushes with a couple of excellent saves, and his distribution, which has been a talking point of late, was better than usual.
Matteo Darmian 6 – A decent performance for someone who’s spent so much time not playing this season. Though he showed some signs of rust, he was as dependable defensively, and sent in a couple of good crosses.
Chris Smalling 5 – Defended well, but missed a glorious first-half chance to score. Also showed why he isn’t in the England reckoning anymore, as his build-up play from the back was shoddy.
Victor Lindelof 6 – At this moment Lindelof is United’s best centre-back, and he delivered a largely solid display again on Saturday – especially at the end, when he put in a crucial tackle despite struggling with an injury.
Ashley Young 4 – A bad display from the United captain, who sent in poor cross after poor cross from the left flank and couldn’t beat his man when he tried attacking.
Nemanja Matic 6 – One of Matic’s better displays of the season. United’s set-up hung him out to dry a little, as he was often the only midfielder hanging back to deal with Palace’s counter-attacks.
Paul Pogba 5 – Started off well, playing some raking long balls to set up attacks, but failed to have enough of an influence as the game wore on. Wasn’t surprising when he was subbed off.
Jesse Lingard 7 – Was among United’s busier players in the first half, but without doing much with his running and possession. Brought a couple of fine stops from Palace stopper Wayne Hennessey
Juan Mata 5 – One of Mata’s more disappointing displays, as despite seeing plenty of the ball there was little he could do with it.
Anthony Martial 7 – His streak of five straight league games with a goal came to an end, though he was United’s most effective player in attack. Could have done better with a second-half chance to score, shooting wide.
Romelu Lukaku 6 – Did find the back of the net, though his second-half tap-in was ruled out for offside. Was denied a goal with a superb save from Palace keeper Hennessey.
Marouane Fellaini 5 – An ineffective cameo from the Belgian, who offered little threat in attack. In his defence, he didn’t have the best service.
Marcus Rashford 7 – Showed industry with two quick tackles to launch a United counter, and came close to scoring another late winner.
Alexis Sanchez 6 – Sanchez was guilty of trying too hard after coming on, and missed one easy pass when United were countering. It was emblematic of his display.