Back where they belong
After a one-year absence, Manchester United returned to the Champions League in fine style on Tuesday. These European nights already possess a certain magic — with the competition’s anthem ringing out over the tannoy — but are all the more welcome after the club’s struggles in recent years. A comfortable victory over the reigning Swiss champs put United atop Group A and in excellent position ahead of the long trip to CSKA Moscow.
José Mourinho praised his team’s performance, though he rued the loss of focus after the second goal: “We played very stable, with confidence, with patience, and with good choices. I would say we played quite well. After it became 2-0, I think everything changed. We stopped making the right decisions on the pitch and could have put ourselves in trouble.”
Mourinho has high hopes for the club in this season’s Champions League. The United manager excels in cup competitions, where his laser-like focus on one opponent usually grants him a decided tactical advantage. Manchester United remains some way off the likes of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, but last night was a big step in the right direction.
Unlike many Manchester United supporters, José Mourinho loves Marouane Fellaini. “He’s a very important player for me — much more important than you can imagine,” he enthused in his pre-match press conference. After Tuesday’s star performance, maybe more fans will start to come around to the manager’s way of thinking.
Ahead of the Basel match, the Belgian looked questionable with a calf complaint. Any time off, though, would have to wait after Paul Pogba’s unfortunate hamstring injury forced an early substitution. Once on the pitch, Fellaini ran the show, making strong runs and showing for the ball at every opportunity. His endeavor was rewarded with the opening goal on 35 minutes, as he headed a pinpoint Ashley Young cross past the goalkeeper.
While Fellaini’s shortcomings have been well noted, his high points shouldn’t be forgotten. He combines unusual size and strength to terrorize defenses — especially in the air — and demands special attention any time he plays. In short, Fellaini is a tactical weapon for a tactical manager. On Tuesday, he repaid Mourinho’s faith with perhaps his best performance in a United shirt.
Yet another clean sheet
With regular center-backs Eric Bailly and Phil Jones suspended, Victor Lindelöf and Chris Smalling made their first starts since the UEFA Super Cup five weeks ago. Both performed capably, albeit not perfectly, as Manchester United earned its fourth clean sheet in five matches. After Saturday’s defensive horror show in Stoke-on-Trent, neither player hurt his chance at a bigger role in the coming weeks.
Ashley Young also made his first appearance of the season, recovering from a long-term groin injury to replace Antonio Valencia at right-back. This makeshift back line accounted itself quite well, limiting Basel to few real opportunities on goal. The one exception came in the second half, when Lindelöf lost his head for a moment and could easily have conceded a penalty with a rash challenge in the box. David De Gea snuffed out the threat with a fine save. All in all, though, any clean sheet deserves to be celebrated.
Fingers crossed for a speedy recovery
Tuesday night started so well for Paul Pogba, chosen to lead his team out of the tunnel as captain for the first time in his career. Unfortunately, the occasion soon turned disastrous. Pogba appeared to strain his hamstring early in the first half, forcing an abrupt exit for United’s midfield maestro. Recovery from such an injury is usually measured in weeks, not days.
This will be a huge loss for Manchester United, no matter how long Pogba spends sidelined. After the match, Mourinho refused to speculate on the injury, but seemed resigned to his star missing some time. One small ray of sunshine — United’s upcoming fixture list does not look too imposing. Pogba should be back before the real challenges arrive later this fall.
Debuts to remember
Both Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford enjoyed strong Champions League debuts. In just the 2nd minute Tuesday, Lukaku appeared set to score until Basel’s Manuel Akanji threw himself in front of the Belgian’s powerful shot. Later that half, he produced an excellent chance for Henrikh Mkhitaryan that only the near post could keep out. Lukaku’s hard work finally paid off with a well-taken header in the 53rd minute. That now brings his tally to six goals in as many games for Manchester United.
Rashford, meanwhile, continued his ridiculous record of scoring in debut matches. His 84th minute goal means that he has now scored on his Premier League, Europa League, Champions League, League Cup, and England debuts. Whether starting or attacking tired legs as a substitute, Rashford has begun the season in fine form and looks set to be an integral piece of the United puzzle.