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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Jose Mourinho accepts Manchester United well below Juventus level after Uefa Champions League defeat

Cristiano Ronaldo makes victorious return to Old Trafford to remind home fans of good old days when he played for Premier League club

Twenty minutes into Manchester United’s 1-0 home defeat to Juventus, a hush descended around Old Trafford.

The Italian champions had for the past seven years succeeded in doing what great teams do when they face potentially tricky away matches – they had silenced the home fans.

They led 1-0 after Paulo Dybala’s goal and combined with their superior possession had United exactly where they wanted them – on the back foot and without the ball in their home stadium. With United struggling to get forward and make use of their attack-minded formation, reality had sunk in. Juventus expected a physical threat and negated it with technical superiority.

United were again late arriving at and late getting into the game. Too often they go behind, but while they were strong enough to roar back from 2-0 against the last team to visit in black and white stripes, Juventus were not only far superior to Newcastle United but any side United have played so far in this troubled season.

Dybala’s 16th-minute goal, resulted from Cristiano Ronaldo’s low cross towards Juan Cuadrado and Chris Smalling, the ball coming out towards Dybala who swept it past David de Gea.

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There were crumbs of comfort and the slightest home foray forward was greeted with desperate cries of ‘Attack! Attack! Attack’ from the Stretford End, but Juventus were seldom genuinely troubled and United made their own task no easier with their profligate passing.

Paul Pogba, who excelled for four years at Juventus and made them £89 million (Dh424.4m) from his transfer, hit a cross field pass after 35 minutes which was cut out by the excellent full-back Joao Cancelo.

A more famous Portuguese – Ronaldo – showed how he had successfully integrated into Juventus’ epic team and fitness ethic. De Gea did well to save Ronaldo’s swerving 37th-minute free-kick and the follow-up shot from Blaise Matuidi.

Every Juventus player had more touches than any United player in the first half, it was that emphatic. Rodrigo Betancur, a 21-year-old Uruguayan acquired from Boca Juniors for only €9m (Dh38m) was an example of Juve’s strategic and successful recruitment.

At the other end of the age scale, 34-year-old captain Giorgio Chiellini hugged fellow 'Common Goal' charity stable mate Juan Mata before the game, then tucked the Spaniard and his United teammates into his pocket for 90 minutes on a blustery autumnal evening.

Chiellini or his perfect foil Leonardo Bonucci were so skilled, experienced and confident in each other’s ability, that one of them would venture deep into the opposing half. They could afford to be – they had 72 per cent of the first half possession.

“We played a fantastic first half and probably should have scored a second goal,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

“We played giants, the biggest candidates to win the Champions League,” Allegri's opposite number Jose Mourinho said. “Mr Bonucci and Mr Chillieni could go to Harvard University to give classes on how to be a central defenders. Absolutely.

"Juventus were at a different level of quality, stability, experience and know-how.”

Mourinho, who gave a three-fingered salute to Juventus fans to remind them that he won the treble at Serie A rivals Inter Milan in 2010 just before Juventus’ domination began, enthused at length about Juventus’ qualities.

A 75th-minute Pogba shot which hit the post was the closest United came to equalising, but a draw would have been unjust and even in time added on, Juventus’ players pressed their opponents into their own corner.

United have picked up one point from two home group games. With away games in Turin and Valencia ahead, qualification will be difficult and Mourinho claimed his team were always fighting for second with Valencia.

It is disheartening for United fans to hear their club being talked of as an also-ran by their manager, but it is also accurate.

Asked how far United, who have won one of their last seven games, are from the top teams, Mourinho said: “To go to the Juventus level?” The Barcelona level? Real Madrid level? Manchester City level? How can you reach that level?

"It’s not also easy, because many of the players, they belong to these top teams, so we work with what we have and we try to improve.”

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, left, paid tribute to Juventus and their manager Massimiliano Allegri after the game. AFP
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, left, paid tribute to Juventus and their manager Massimiliano Allegri after the game. AFP

“Juventus have been champions for the last seven years, have reached two Champions League finals in the last four years and they’re not happy with what they have. They want more.

"They had Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, but they wanted more. They wanted Ronaldo.

"They go for the best players in the world, so a big, big club with a big past, but with also a big desire to have a big future and everything they put there is to try to win.”

It was a barb aimed as much at his own board whom he feels failed to back him, but United have spent serious money on new talents during their five-year decline since last winning the league, they just have not spent it anywhere near as smartly as Juventus.

The Turin club should win the group and while returning hero Ronaldo did not score in Manchester, he was the last player to leave the field where he was serenaded with ‘Viva Ronaldo!’ by the Stretford End.

It was another uncomfortable reminder of better times for United fans, times when United were the best team in the world.

Not any more they are not, not by a long way.