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Marouane Fellaini the catalyst on Man United's Champions League return

September 12, 2017 8:55 PM
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Marouane Fellaini the catalyst on Man United's Champions League return

Manchester United dominated throughout on their way to a 3-0 win over Basel in the opening game of their return to the UEFA Champions League. The only major downside was the hamstring injury to Paul Pogba. United were incisive, their passing and movement several levels beyond Basel at times, and their goals again came from a range of scorers -- the crucial sign of a well-balanced attack.

Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Daley Blind, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku all stood out, but this was a fine collective performance. Against limited opposition, United were still as ruthless as any leading side should be.

The injury to Pogba, which United must hope is not too severe. His withdrawal showed United's strength in depth but it is not an area they will want to test too readily in the weeks ahead.

9 -- Jose Mourinho deployed Fellaini, the game's star man, to excellent effect, and sent out a side that was on top from the very outset. They played smart, positive and attractive football, and Basel were eventually overwhelmed.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK David De Gea, 7 -- Rarely called upon -- once in the first and once in the second -- but wholly ready both times, on the second occasion producing a magnificent save after Victor Lindelof had been turned. Dealt very well with a very poor back pass from Chris Smalling in the first half when the game was still close.

DF Ashley Young, 8 -- Got forward so often that he looked like the right-winger of old, creating the opening goal superbly by evading two men and then landing a cross perfectly on Fellaini's forehead too. Defended with intelligence and intensity.

DF Victor Lindelof, 7 -- Started the game strongly, shepherding his man and the ball out of danger. His passing was positive and his positioning mostly assured, save for when he was turned sharply in the second half and De Gea had to bail him out.

DF Chris Smalling, 6 -- The team's weakest link. He was under minimal pressure throughout but still looked unsure in positioning and possession and on one occasion released a dangerous backpass that would have exposed a less aware goalkeeper than De Gea. Better teams will expose this.

DF Daley Blind, 8 -- Provided an assist for Romelu Lukaku's match-clinching header, got forward almost as much as Young, passed with urgency and accuracy, and even won a foot-race when tracking back. A fine performance.

MF Nemanja Matic, 9 -- Made only one notable mistake -- a poor pass towards his own goal to lose possession when the game was already safe -- and pushed his team forward at every opportunity, driving the ball into the feet of the forwards with real pace and intent. Anticipated danger time and again, and his movement both in defence and attack was excellent.

MF Paul Pogba, N/A -- Started well but was withdrawn early with a hamstring injury, a disappointment after some of his fine passing had started to unsettle Basel.

MF Juan Mata, 8 -- Elusive throughout; Basel's defenders had as much luck locating him as a giant looking for a grain of sand in his back pocket. Constantly found room in the final third, was always an outlet for United's best passing, and moved the ball on so swiftly that Basel could never settle. An understated gem of an outing.

MF Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 7 -- A mixed bag of an evening. Has the potential to be United's most devastating attacking player but should have scored from two excellent opportunities -- putting the ball over the bar and then against the post from a few yards out -- and lost possession a couple of times in his own half to put his defence at grave risk. Yet he also opened up Basel with his exceptional range of passing and his wonderful acceleration and sleight of foot. On a slightly subpar night given his talents, he was still a decisive influence.

MF Anthony Martial, 8 -- His efforts did not result in a goal or assist, but he always had the beating of his opposite man -- or, in a couple of cases, men. Was the key reason why Blind had so much freedom on the left flank, and why Basel were so exhausted in the late stages. His movement was relentless throughout, and his dribbling a genuine threat.

FW Romelu Lukaku, 8 -- Six goals in six games now this season for United, with a fine header to open his Champions League account for the club. Yet that was the least of his contribution. Looked sharp from the start, ran the channels with intelligence, showed quick feet to get off an early strike now and then, and held the ball up reliably all game. He is crucial to this formation, in that he pushes the defence five or 10 yards further back than they wish, creating room for playmakers behind him to thrive.

MF Marouane Fellaini, 9 -- Some were anxious when he took the field but he was arguably United's man of the match. Passed promptly out of defence, shielded his back-four well, scored a great header to open the scoring, provided Marcus Rashford with a square pass for the last goal, and even produced a sublime backheel late in the second half to continue an attack -- a sign of his burgeoning confidence. Under Louis van Gaal he was excellent in patches, but under Mourinho he is a player transformed.

MF Jesse Lingard, 7 -- Cut into central areas, with his movement sharp from the outset and effective against Basel's tired legs.

MF Marcus Rashford, N/A -- Of course Rashford scored on his debut in the Champions League -- of course he did. He adjusts to the pace of the play almost as smartly as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once did. A danger from the moment of his introduction.

Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.


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