Manchester United fans expected a turnaround in the Champions League but got more of the same from Jose Mourinho and his team who look lost in the weeds
There was world-class talent on display, it was fully committed, it was bitter, it was unflinching and it was, at times, brutal. Sadly it was at that point that the football had to start.
It says something about the current state of Manchester United when the actual match is significantly less interesting than the punditry. However, it isn’t altogether surprising given that Jose Mourinho has usually been significantly more interesting than his teams.
The build-up to Tuesday night’s 0-0 draw with Valencia was dominated by the question of how much longer he’d be in the job. During his press conference on Monday he was asked if a rumour was true that he’d been contacted by his putative replacement, Zinedine Zidane. He replied by accusing the journalist of bugging his phone, which given that the journalist in question works for an organisation that has form for that kind of thing, caused an awkward silence before the media officer issued a terse: “questions on the game please.”
The game? Did they really want to go there?
After the supine 3-1 defeat to West Ham on Saturday, United legends were queuing up to put the boot in. Paul Scholes said he was surprised Mourinho was still employed and that he’d “embarrassed” the club. Gary Neville blamed the malaise on the decision to sack David Moyes after less than a year in the job. Multiple pundits referred to the club’s ethos: a compulsion to play attacking football regardless of the result (a myth given that whenever United attack and lose Old Trafford becomes a circus of bitterness and recrimination).
The consensus was that after Saturday’s capitulation they needed to “put on a show”. Alexis Sanchez, excluded from the West Ham squad entirely, was back in the starting line-up. Would he be the man to spark United’s revival? Perhaps Romelu Lukaka could provide the inspiration?
And Paul Pogba, supposedly furious at his ongoing treatment by the manager, surely had a point to prove?
No. Sanchez stank the stadium out. Lukaka showed the mobility of a super tanker and Pogba was eclipsed by his compatriot Francis Coquelin, a midfielder who guarantees you at least three goals a decade.
The commentator made much of Mourinho shaking the hands of each individual player before kick-off as if this was somehow evidence that he didn’t loathe at least half of them.
The game kicked off, five minutes late because the police had apparently refused to escort the team from their hotel in central Manchester. And nothing happened. They didn’t park the bus, but they may as well have stayed on it.
At half-time BT Sport’s anchor Gary Lineker talked the game up by describing it as “turgid.” The fans watched in silence, with occasional outbursts of polite, cricket-style applause until the 50th minute, when the atmosphere began to turn. The uncomplicated: “Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack!” chant went up.
Sanchez at least couldn’t be faulted for effort, but with around 20 minutes left he found himself in the space on the right hand side. Was this the moment he’d produce the decisive cross, or cut inside to unleash the kind of 25-yard rocket he used to conjure for Arsenal? No, it was the moment he unleashed a ball of such ineptitude it flew high over the heads of his team mates in the penalty area and flew out of play for a Valencia throw-in. He was immediately subbed, to the first significant cheer of the night.
Three minutes of injury time were signaled, which illustrated how far United have fallen. Sir Alex would have been given at least five.
And then the final whistle, which frankly came as something of a relief, because it meant we could get back to where the real entertainment was: in the studio, where Scholes admitted he’d spent much of the second half watching the other matches in the hope of seeing a goal.