Young Boys did Manchester United a huge favor on Wednesday, by upsetting Juventus in Switzerland. The result meant that had United beaten Valencia in Spain, the Reds would have gone through to the next round as group winners, and thus avoided some of the strongest teams left in the competition. Instead, United put on a thoroughly uninspired performance, and deservedly lost 2-1 to Valencia. A first half strike from Carlos Soler and a second half Phil Jones own goal secured three points for Los Che.
With this match a dead rubber given that both teams were already assured qualification (United to the next round of the Champions League, Valencia to the Europa League), José Mourinho’s team selection indicated that he already had one eye on the huge Premier League clash with Liverpool at the weekend. While star midfielder Paul Pogba returned to the line-up, there were also starts for the lesser seen Fred and Andreas Pereira, as the manager made a total of 8 changes from the side that beat Fulham.
United were almost off to a disastrous start. Antonio Valencia was booked for throwing himself into a reckless tackle on Toni Lato, but the skipper could have easily been shown a red. Unfortunately, the Reds did not take their slice of fortune and run with it. Five minutes later, United were behind.
As has been the case so often this season, United’s defending left much to be desired. A series of players being too slow to react and/or poorly positioned meant that Carlos Soler found himself with all the space and time in the world in the box, and only needed to guide his finish into the corner of Sergio Romero’s net, via the wickets of Eric Bailly.
United continued to amount to very little, with their only chance of note in the opening half hour coming from a Juan Mata half volley that hit the side netting. Valencia were comfortably the more dangerous side, and had Michy Batshuayi not allowed a cross to ricochet off his shoulder — instead of taking advantage of what would have been a free header — the hosts would’ve doubled their lead after 31 minutes.
Pogba should have equalized against the run of play just moments later, but inexplicably shot wide from almost point blank range after getting on the end of Marouane Fellaini’s knock down. From there, Valencia continued to make — and spurn — chances
Mourinho made his first change at half time, sending on Ashley Young in place of Marcos Rojo in an attempt to provide better overlapping width as well as stop the frequent attacks down United’s left flank. But before United could even attempt to change their fortunes after the break, they had already shot themselves in the foot.
Phil Jones is not a regular goalscorer, and when he put the ball into the net just a minute after the restart, it was probably the most expert finish of his United career. Unfortunately for United, Jones’ sliding redirect beat Sergio Romero instead of Juame Doménech, and the center back put his side two goals down with a silly and avoidable own goal when he panicked trying to get rid of a through ball.
Whatever spark Mourinho’s half time talk may have provided, that possibility went out the window once Valencia doubled their lead. Marcus Rashford came on in place of the ineffective Fred, but that did little to lend coherence to the attack. The final roll of the tactical dice — or perhaps a pre-planned substitution for rest — came in the form of Jesse Lingard coming on for Romelu Lukaku.
Meanwhile, Juventus were being upset 2-0 by Young Boys in Bern in the other group game, meaning that United were blowing their chance to progress as group winners.
United’s first sign of life came from the man who played his home games at the Mestalla last season. Pereira was invited to shoot in the 75th minute, and blasted a dipping effort that Doménech had to be at full stretch top keep out.
United eventually pulled one back in the 87th minute. Good interplay among Pogba, Juan Mata, and Lingard led to Young being in a position to whip in an inviting cost. The in-form Rashford was then on hand to steer a header into the back of the net.
United nearly snatched a draw in the 90th minute. Paul Pogba’s lovely scooped ball just evaded the boot of Juan Mata, and the ball bounced agonizingly wide. In truth, it was too little too late, and a share of the points would have flattered the visitors.