Old Trafford had started to empty when the electronic board went up to announce that Manchester United had three minutes left to play against Young Boys in their Uefa Champions League Group H game.
There was no desperate roar from the home crowd to the accompanying message from the public address system, that primal noise which Jose Mourinho described as “hell” when he visited as manager of Porto. Frustrated by what they have seen this season, United fans appeared resigned to a third straight Champions League home game without a goal. The belief that their team can grab a late winner has lessened, the fans have been worn down and have grown tired with the low-scoring, entertainment-lite football they have been watching.
The fact the scoreboard was scoreless at that time wasn’t even a surprise, just another below-par home match, this time against the Swiss champions whom they beat 3-0 in Berne in September.
United had created chances, but Marcus Rashford’s profligacy saw Mourinho make his frustration with his young striker clear with his actions on the touchline. But the United manager saved his best for the end, when Marouanne Fellaini, one of his most loyal lieutenants, controlled a long Luke Shaw ball that had been headed on by Romelu Lukaku. As he turned, he appeared to control the ball partly with his hand, before hitting a shot through Loris Benito’s legs and into the bottom corner.
As Young Boys players complained, Mourinho kicked one set of plastic water bottles over, before picking up another tray and smashing them into the grass in celebration. Fellaini then ran to his boss and hugged him.
United fans cheered and there were chants of “We’ll never die”, but it was no cathartic release, even though their team are assured of reaching the last 16 of European football’s premier tournament. A late goal against Young Boys helps, but it doesn’t convince those who think United have serious problems that all is well.
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“Relief,” said Mourinho of his celebration. “And frustration before that. We didn’t play for that, for a 0-0. We didn’t play to be in trouble for the last minute. I was not unhappy with the players, but frustrated with the fact that we couldn’t score. My players were very tired in the end and that’s what I love.”
It wasn’t just about United’s late winner.
“Without David [de Gea’s] save, no winning goal,” said Mourinho, in reference to his goalkeeper’s goal line stop from Ulisses Garcia. “He’s a world-class player, the best goalkeeper in the world. And if our ambitions are to be a winning club, you need the best goalkeeper in the world and also some of the best players in the world. But in the end we’ve qualified from a very difficult group.”
Mourinho, who is confident that De Gea will sign a new contract, knows there are better teams in the competition, defended his own record in the competition .
“I’ve played Champions League 14 times and qualified [for the last 16] 14 times,” he said. “In the two years I didn’t play Champions League I won the Europa League.”
Mourinho left Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku on the bench against a tall, well organised Swiss side while Aleix Sanchez wasn't even named among the substitutes.
Nemanja Matic and Fred held the midfield with Fellaini ahead of them, the role he played for Everton. In front of him, Rashford was frustrated to miss several chances. United had 21 shots in total, but it was De Gea who had to make the most important saves.
Sixty-three minutes in, there was tepid applause when Jesse Lingard came off for Lukaku, the same when Pogba replaced Fred seconds later. Tepid, because the outgoing players scarcely deserved more and there wasn’t enough faith that the incoming players could make much of a difference, despite costing £164 million (Dh768m) between them. There has never been a more expensive pair of substitutes introduced in any football match.
Mourinho would rather the focus be on the players he selected and not those he left out. He knows that the win takes the heat off United and him, but not much. Still, it was a goal and a win, something United hadn’t managed at home in Europe this season.