Marouane Fellaini barely touched the ball for Man Utd vs Juventus and that was enough to enhance appreciation for him among supporters.
In his 16 minutes and 49 seconds of playing time in Turin all Marouane Fellaini did with the ball was complete two passes. One was to Paul Pogba and the other to Nemanja Matic. Uefa described them as ‘short’ and ‘medium’. A new Barcelona documentary is called Take the Ball, Pass the Ball. You can do a lot more without the ball.
When Jose Mourinho hollered at Fellaini and Juan Mata to return to the dugout for their instructions the latter seemed taken aback. There was an acceptance from Mata that Fellaini was a given but United required silk to complement the steel.
Fellaini and Mata’s entrance in the 79th minute forced Massimiliano Allegri’s hand. On came Andrea Barzagli – a central defender – for the right back Mattia de Sciglio. Barzagli was once a member of Juve’s Holy Trinity of catenaccio connoissuers with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci and looked utterly incongruous at full-back. The 37-year-old crumbled like biscotti against Anthony Martial and conceded the decisive 89th minute free-kick.
As early as the first minute it was striking that, as United foraged into Juventus’s third, how futile it was for Ashley Young to cross when Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Martial would have required a trampoline to outjump Chiellini and Bonucci. The irony was United’s winner came via a Young centre.
“We start winning first balls in the air, Massimiliano had to react,” Mourinho explained. “Had to bring Barzagli, when he bring Barzagli, [Juan] Cuadrado goes out, and their counter-attack is less dangerous because they are trying to control.”
Barzagli is 6ft 2ins but began to shrink. As Young’s inswinger veered towards the far post, Fellaini was surrounded by Chiellini, Barzagli and Rodrigo Bentancur. His bushy noggin did not even graze the ball but he effectively won the tussle and Juventus committed that cardinal sin of defending – they allowed the ball to bounce in the six-yard box. A glove, a header and a shoulder later, United were ahead.
Little wonder Mourinho bemoaned Fellaini’s absence after Juventus triumphed at Old Trafford, where Chiellini and Bonucci bullied Romelu Lukaku.
“We play against one of the biggest really biggest candidates to win the Champions League and we did the possible we could to get the different result,” Mourinho said. “Especially because of the way we played in the second-half. We didn’t, especially because Mr Bonucci, Mr Chiellini, they could go to some Harvard University to give classes about how to be a central defender.” Fellaini might have cancelled the lecture.
Juve possibly possess the best back four in the world yet Fellaini reduced them to quivering wrecks and the celebratory photographs said it all. Lenses homed in on Fellaini as photographers relied on guesswork to determine who exactly scored the winner. It was credited to Alex Sandro but Fellaini effectively claimed an assist.
This was Fellaini’s first appearance in exactly a month, when his half-time introduction sparked that potentially season-defining revival against Newcastle. Louis van Gaal once curiously commented that United press better with Fellaini and that was one of his more erudite observations. Even a natural athlete like Pogba is prepared to take a back seat for the 30-year-old Fellaini.
“I think he was important to make the team alive again,” Mourinho said on Wednesday evening. “Because when you concede the goal the team had a period of, by the psychological point of view, we went down a little bit and then Juventus was finally in control and was finally dangerous in the counter attack.
“And Fellaini gave us an option to be alive again by playing direct, by bringing the game again to the last third and by being in last third was giving us the chance to create situations like we did.”
Plenty of United supporters despaired at the belated contract extension Fellaini agreed in the summer, confirmed 34 hours before his previous deal expired. United were convinced Fellaini was ‘gone’ as he weighed up an improved salary as a free agent and the timing of their announcement reflected unfavourably on him. Fellaini had also struggled with knee problems for eight months and declared himself unfit to influence the FA Cup final, much to Mourinho’s chagrin.
Few dispute Fellaini’s usefulness, though, and it was just over a year ago that Belgium coach Roberto Martinez infuriated United by playing Fellaini in a meaningless World Cup qualifier in Sarajevo, where his ailments began. Fellaini had scored four in eight and partially offset the loss of Pogba to a hamstring injury. In his eventual return at Chelsea last November, he almost salvaged a draw.
Mourinho’s dependence on Fellaini has been repaid in spades. Fellaini gave United a temporary stay of execution in the Carabao Cup with a 90th minute header against Derby and the recent sparing use of him has enhanced the appreciation. Back in September, Mourinho over-used Fellaini as a defensive shield while he continued to focus on what the opposition could do to United rather than vice versa. He has disavowed that modus operandi.
Juventus, Newcastle, Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool are six second-half six cameos under Mourinho where Fellaini has left his calling card. Thirteen of his 21 United goals have come via the bench.
But you can do a lot more without the ball.