Juan Mata was left frustrated as Manchester United‘s latest display of delayed intensity led to a drab defeat to Valencia, putting Jose Mourinho’s men on the back foot ahead of this Sunday’s trip to bitter rivals Liverpool.
With progress to the Champions League round of 16 already assured, the United boss made eight alterations to his injury-hit squad at the struggling La Liga side.
But the fringe players failed their audition at the cavernous Mestalla, where a Phil Jones own goal compounded Carlos Soler’s first-half strike to render substitute Marcus Rashford’s effort a mere consolation as the visitors ended the match on top.
Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat meant United missed the chance to top Group H after Juventus surprisingly lost by the same scoreline at Young Boys, but this latest belated performance was more of a concern.
Mourinho’s men have more often than not only started playing after going behind – a point raised by Mata ahead of Sunday’s eagerly-anticipated Premier League trip to Liverpool.
“We are disappointed because obviously it’s more painful knowing that Juventus lost and if we’d have won we would have finished first in the group,” the former Valencia favourite said.
“Disappointing night. It was special for me personally coming back to Valencia and feel the love of the club and the supporters, so I am grateful for that.
“But disappointed overall. I think we reacted a bit too late, so we had some chances at the end that we could have scored.
“But overall we qualified and that was the most important thing and we knew that, but obviously we would have loved to have been first in the group.”
Put to Mata that goalscorer Rashford and Jesse Lingard had done well off the bench, Mata said: “Yeah, it seems like we always push in the last minutes, when players come off from the bench or the players that are on the pitch.
“It seems like we react in the last 10, 15 minutes and start creating more chances and getting closer and closer to score.
“That’s what we did today but it was not enough.”
That knack of only playing uninhibited football when the chips are down is a worrying quirk in a disappointing season, with United already 16 points behind league-leading Liverpool.
Defeat to Valencia adds pressure heading into Sunday’s clash with Jurgen Klopp’s Reds and Mata refused to use the excuse that the lack of occasion in Spain could have been behind a lack of intensity.
“It’s a very busy month and we have very important games coming, especially on Sunday,” the Spaniard told MUTV. “But I don’t think it’s an excuse because as a football player, you focus on the game that you are playing and try to give your best in every single game.
“Today we were already qualified but it was still a Champions League game against a good team.
“Obviously, they wanted to show that they can beat a club like Manchester United and they are not in a very good position in the league either.
“But today they pushed, and they wanted to show they are a very competitive side.
“I know it’s difficult, but we have to keep going and especially with what we have coming on Sunday, we need to be ready for that.”
Already assured of knockout phase football next year, the Portuguese made eight changes for Wednesday’s match at Valencia as injuries took their toll ahead of the trip to Liverpool.
United knew victory at the Mestalla would see them top Group H in the unlikely event that Juventus slipped up in Switzerland, but Mourinho’s men failed to do their bit as the improbable played out at Young Boys.
The Serie A giants lost 2-1 at the same time that United fell by the same scoreline in Spain, where a Carlos Soler strike and Phil Jones own goal meant substitute Marcus Rashford’s late strike was just a consolation effort.
None of those brought in did themselves any favours, so it was little wonder that Mourinho looked at the end of his tether and offered the response of “not pleased” in a brusque start to the press conference.
“I think that to qualify in this group is a success,” the United boss said. “Never a failure. To finish second in this group is always a success.
“Before the game I told the players that if we win tonight and Juventus win, we did our job.
“If we don’t win and Juventus doesn’t win, we can blame ourselves.
“I don’t think the draw finishing first or second – apart from a couple of clubs that are clearly much better than the others – I don’t think the draw will be significantly different…
“But I expect (better) from my players, especially players that week in, week out, you ask me ‘why don’t they play?’, ‘why they don’t they start?’
“(It) was a good match to play, a match without any kind of pressure, a match in a competition that everybody likes to play.
“And, in the end, my team improved, really, when I made the changes that I didn’t want to make, which is a little bit of frustration because I didn’t want to play the three players that I played in the second half.”
Ashley Young replaced the injured Marcos Rojo after a torrid first half, while Rashford came on for summer signing Fred and Jesse Lingard was brought on for Romelu Lukaku.
Paul Pogba failed to shine after starting the last two matches on the bench, while Eric Bailly and Andreas Pereira also struggled to make an impact.
Asked if he had learned anything about his players, Mourinho retorted: “No, maybe you did. Not me.
“I didn’t learn anything from this game. Anything. Nothing that happened surprised me at all.”
It was a cutting response from Mourinho, whose squad players’ performances at the Mestalla only reinforced long-standing opinions.
The United boss confirmed that Nemanja Matic and David De Gea were the only players rested for the trip to Spain.
“If this match was a match to decide the group, it would be a very similar team,” Mourinho said.
“That’s the reality. So, when sometimes when you analyse Manchester United and you speak about our ambitions and speak about our level, sometimes you should learn the situation a little bit better because you make certain kind of comments.”
Valencia will be playing Europa League football despite this memorable win.
Head coach Marcelino said: “We needed this winning feeling back in our game. Today we are very satisfied and I’m happy for the players. We were brave and adventurous.”
Jose Mourinho joked a lack of bottled water at Old Trafford must mean Manchester United are saving money for the January transfer window, but Saturday’s comfortable win over Fulham suggested his squad might not need such radical surgery as previously thought.
For once United did not need to fall behind before taking control, getting goals from Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku – his first at Old Trafford since March – before the break.
Fulham got back in it via Aboubakar Kamara’s penalty early in the second half, but Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa saw red for a second bookable offence soon after and Marcus Rashford finished Claudio Ranieri’s side off with a scorching shot out of nothing – his first home goal of the season.
Mourinho was unimpressed by a lack of water when he arrived for his post-match press conference – “Are we saving money for January?” he asked – but not much else about the afternoon irked him.
“The first half was really, really good at every level,” said Mourinho. “The second half, as I told the press, Ranieri has good experience. He read the game, understood the game and changed the game for the better for them. It was more difficult for us.
“Also there was some fatigue which is understandable…but it was a good result, a good performance and good individual performances. Lukaku and Rashford had no goals for a while, so their goals mean something for them too. I’m really happy.”
All of this happened with Paul Pogba once again left on the bench. Mourinho said the France midfielder would start against Valencia in the Champions League on Tuesday, but still had a message for his struggling star.
“He has to play with the same mentality as the team is playing,” Mourinho said when asked what he needed to do to get back in the side.
“Paul can be a fantastic player, he has the potential to be a fantastic player. Against Valencia he is going to start and have a fantastic football game to play and to show everybody how good he is.”
That suggests Mourinho wants Pogba to learn lessons from the performances of Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.
“You have teams that are positionally good, ready to press, and with a desire to press, and I think these two boys – Matic and Herrera – have a really strong mentality,” Mourinho said.
“The way they play football is to play at their top of their level and then the people in front of them were also good.”
One of the most impressive performances of the day belonged to Diogo Dalot, making only his second Premier League start. The 19-year-old sent in a string of dangerous crosses while also keeping Fulham’s Andre Schurrle quiet at the other end.
“He has a lot to learn, he’s 19, but physically he’s compact, he’s technically very good and he’s a happy boy when he’s playing football,” Mourinho said. “He goes forward all the time with good quality of crossing.
“We are very happy. Now it’s December he’s going to get more opportunities to play, to get experience and to be what we thought when we bought him, which is the Manchester United right-back for 10 years.”
Fulham boss Ranieri was unhappy with Anguissa’s dismissal – which came after he tangled with Rashford – but told his players they can build on their second-half performance.
“My player touched the ball only and the referee gave a second yellow card,” Ranieri said. “It changed the match because the first minutes of the second half were much better.
“We showed what we have to do if we are to stay in the Premier League. I said to my players, the first half is how we get relegated. The second half is how we survive.”