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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

'I know my qualities': Marouane Fellaini becoming indispensable at Manchester United after man-of-the-match show in Champions League opener

The Belgian midfielder came on for the injured Paul Pogba, promptly scored and set up Marcus Rashford for United's third against Basel

Marouane Fellaini scored Manchester United's first goal in a 3-0 win against Basel in Group A of the Uefa Champions League at Old Trafford. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Marouane Fellaini scored Manchester United's first goal in a 3-0 win against Basel in Group A of the Uefa Champions League at Old Trafford. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Marouane Fellaini again outlined why Jose Mourinho rates him so highly, scoring the opening goal in Manchester United’s comfortable 3-0 victory over Swiss champions Basel in the opening game of Group A at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku scored his sixth goal in six games for his new club to make it 2-0 after 52 minutes. As with his compatriot Fellaini, the goal came from a header. United’s third, came from Marcus Rashford after 83 minutes. It wasn’t a header, but Fellaini did provide the low cross for it. Rashford has now scored in his first appearance in the Champions League, Premier League, Europa League, FA Cup, League Cup and for England.

Though Fellaini had yet to start a game for United this season or appear in the first half of any match, the Belgian is enjoying his best spell since joining from Everton four years ago, influencing games almost immediately when he comes off the bench.

He came off late in United’s opening Premier League game against West Ham United with the score at 2-0. That score was soon 4-0. A week later at Swansea City, he came on with the score at 1-0, ostensibly to shut up shop and protect United’s lead. United scored three times. Against Leicester City in the third league game, he was introduced with the score at 1-0 to replace the assist king Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Fellaini scored to double the lead and maintain United’s 100 per cent record. When Fellaini was ruled out of the fourth game at Stoke City on Saturday, a game his manager said was perfect for the big Belgian, United’s winning run ended.

Though Mourinho made several changes against Basel, awarding Victor Lindelof a home debut in the persistent Mancunian rain and Ashley Young and Chris Smalling their first starts of the season, Fellaini remained on the bench. At least for the first 19 minutes, which is when captain Paul Pogba limped off clutching his hamstring. He left Old Trafford on crutches.

Young took the captain’s armband, Fellaini the central midfield role and the pair combined for the goal after 35 minutes, Young crossing for the Belgian to head in. Fellaini celebrated by pointing to the number on his back. He’s too technically deficient to be considered one of the greatest players in United’s history, but that’s not stopping him becoming an unlikely cult figure and an important player.

Until the goal, Basel, without a win in their past 10 Champions League games, offered little of the fight and fire evident from their noisy flare-wielding fans. The Swiss side sat behind the ball with a five-man defence designed to avoid defeat rather than win the game. Basel had drawn on their two previous trips at Old Trafford, but while they have won eight consecutive Swiss titles, their philosophy has changed to promote home-grown players and expectations lowered.

United were far too strong, with Fellaini was their most influential player. He was at the near post to clear a 63rd minute cross. Two minutes later, he was at the other end of the pitch, crossing for an Anthony Martial effort in front of the Stretford End. Fellaini defends set pieces and attacks set pieces. He’s versatile and reliable. Opponents hate playing against him, but few expected him to make back heels at pace as he did after 73 minutes.

Fellaini’s confidence is high and contrasts with the start of this year when he seriously considered leaving Old Trafford and felt that fans would never warm to him.

Mourinho’s arrival helped the player, a quiet and respectful character at United’s training ground, and United’s manager was adamant that he wasn’t leaving when he was linked to Galatasaray in July. A new contract is likely to follow.

“I feel good,” said Fellaini after the game. “I know what I can do and I know my qualities. When I am on the pitch I give everything.” That didn’t used to be enough. It is now.

United’s next game is in Moscow against a CSKA side who beat Benfica away. Fans will be worried if Pogba is out, a little less worried knowing how well Fellaini is playing.