Champions League: Club Brugge 0-4 Manchester United (1-7)
Last week I had the good fortune of being at the Theatre of Dreams for Club Brugge’s first leg defeat to Manchester United. On a personal note, it couldn’t have been a better trip. Manchester United won 3-1, Januzaj and, in particular, Memphis were prominent, my favourite United player (Fellaini) scored and the Belgian opposition gave a worthy account of themselves.
Last night Manchester United took an early lead through their captain Wayne Rooney, whose goal drought has been well publicised. Club responded well despite being three goals behind on aggregate and finished the first half the stronger of the two teams ; Abdoulay Diaby will have recurring nightmares of failing to get the better of Sergio Romero when clean through. The half-time whistle was the full-time whistle in terms of this tie as a contest as United ran riot after the resumption and tore the makeshift Club defence to ribbons as Rooney helped himself to a hat-trick.
Goodnight Mister Tom
Facing a two-goal deficit after the game at Old Trafford, an early goal was essential for the home side to twitch the posterior of United boss Louis van Gaal. The chance would fall to Tom De Sutter whose volley was blocked by Luke Shaw and that, along with the opportunity he fluffed in the corresponding game against Panathinaikos was symbolic. As he bids farewell to the Pro League, it is worth reflecting on his time in Belgian football. Bursting onto the scene with Cercle Brugge, he was courted by AZ among others but a fee of €3m and then a serious knee injury put paid to a move north of the border. Also hailed as the out-and-out goalscorer that would catapult KAA Gent from European contenders to title candidates, he set his sights higher and earned a move to Anderlecht. He returned to Brugge to play for Club and now has secured a move to Bursaspor as he seeks a new challenge beyond the borders of his home country.
Despite being one of the better strikers in the league throughout his career, he was rarely someone showered with praise from supporters. A goal return of 79 in 246 is more than respectable but never outstanding, which sums De Sutter up rather neatly. In this case, statistics do not lie. Although an imposing figure on paper, he rarely used his 1m92 (6’3½”) frame to the maximum effect – few centrebacks lay awake at night worrying about him and came off the field knowing they had been in a game. That’s not a charge that could be levelled at his concurrent strikers at Sporting – Romelu Lukaku and Dieumerci Mbokani. A fairly regular name on the scoresheet, nor was he the clinical forward with the killer instinct to put those half-chances away. Accused of bottling key chances in the big games, his finest moment, as he admitted himself in the aftermath of his final appearance, was his goal in the 2015 cup final for Club against his former side Anderlecht with Blauw-Zwart going on to lift the trophy in dramatic style.
His shortcomings laid bare, he nevertheless deserves to be remembered fondly if not as a great. Not every player can be a spectacular headline-grabbing forward such as Mbokani or an eccentric, inconsistent but unplayable on a given day Jovanovic. One journalist remarked he would leave the Pro League an icon. That’s as little in keeping with reality as the overly strident criticism levelled at the likeable 30-year-old. You can see the line of thinking though – he is a homegrown player who was important for the fabric of the competition. He won’t go down in the Club Brugge annals alongside the likes of Frank Farina or Rune Lange but he did a serviceable job for three top-flight clubs without ever possessing what it takes to take his game to the next (international – 14 caps 0 goals) level but there’s no shame in that.
Another, more high-profile player who often cops unfair criticism sat on the bench for 90 minutes last night. Marouane Fellaini, whose goal in the first leg was critical, had been the subject of much pre-game discussion. Unsurprisingly put forward for the customary pre-game press conference in his homeland, van Gaal explained that the ex-Standard man would feature either as a striker or second striker (using the manager’s own terminology for his current blueprint) rather than in midfield, where United are, for once, well-stocked. In Manchester last week, a lot of fans continued to insist that it was beneath their club to resort to hurling the ball into the giant Belgian – that it is not the United way. I couldn’t disagree more. If you subscribe to the post-Moyes view that the United way is essentially the Ferguson way, then one of the greatest strengths of Sir Alex besides his hunger and longevity was his pragmatism, particularly in the second half of his United tenure. In sharp contrast to his familar foe Arsène Wenger, Ferguson showed more flexibility than an Olympic gymnast and was prepared to try all sorts in pursuit of the ultimate goal of trophies. Fellaini is a (nominal) midfield player capable of scoring goals, something United have lacked since Paul Scholes reinvented his game. More crucially, he has exhibited the strength of character to bounce back from a clumsy transfer and lacklustre first campaign and prove his worth, which makes him worthy of a place in the Red Devils’ squad.
If Rooney was last night’s man-of-the-match, then the player of the tie was Memphis, who registered two goals and two assists over the two legs. His quick, incisive running and eye for goal is what he was best-known for in the Eredivisie when he starred so brightly in PSV’s title-winning campaign last year. These are also the qualities Manchester United were crying out for and his continued development under van Gaal can only do Oranje good. More pleasing to my eye was the precision of the ball he laid on to Rooney for the first goal. If Memphis can consistently add that composure and finesse to his devastating pace, he will become a firm fan favourite at Old Trafford and an indispensable figure as Danny Blind picks up the pieces from the mess Guus Hiddink left behind.
Looking ahead to the draw
We might have expected three teams from BeNeFoot land in the group stages but we will have to settle for the respective champions PSV from the Eredivisie and KAA Gent from the Pro League. Such is the revised format of the draw that they can draw each other. De Buffalo’s are candid about their chances of progression but would love to see Barcelona come out of the hat, bringing Lionel Messi to their state-of-the-art Ghelamco Arena. Ten years have passed since PSV were unfortunately knocked out at the semi-final stage by Milan, which increasingly looks like the final swansong of Benelux teams at the top table. With that in mind, I hope they draw each other this afternoon.