Manchester United were still in with a shout of finishing at the top of their Champions League group heading to Valencia on Wednesday. As it turned out, a win would have achieved exactly that.
But you wouldn’t have known it watching their performance as they turned in a catastrophically submissive display in a 2-1 defeat which could now consign them to a round-of-16 clash with one of Europe’s giant clubs.
Jose Mourinho has spent much of the last three months admitting that he was expecting Young Boys to drop three points at every turn, but what he really could have done without was his side playing like a Juventus victory in Switzerland was a formality.
But their result in Spain now dictates that they will be drawn against one of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and Porto in Monday’s draw rather than teeing up a potentially more favourable last-16 affair.
As if a kinder Champions League future were not enough of a carrot for the United players, their places in the side going forward should have been a huge incentive too.
Paul Pogba returned after being dropped for successive games only to turn in a miserable performance, while the likes of Eric Bailly, Phil Jones – more on him later – Marcos Rojo, Fred and Andreas Pereira did little to promote their names in Mourinho’s thinking going forward.
The first Valencia goal had been coming long before Carlos Soler drove home a loose ball in acres of space from Jones’ half-clearance after a right-wing cross by Santi Mina. United had deserved to fall behind every bit as much as the home side had merited a lead.
The farce factor was ramped up for Valencia’s second, though, as Bailly went walkabouts and Soler was able to feed a ball through the middle of United’s defence. But as Sergio Romero came out to intercept, Jones slid the ball straight past his own keeper. It perfectly summed up United’s display in many ways.
With Rojo having been hooked at half-time following an ugly 45 minutes at left-back, a position he hadn’t played since the EFL Cup final win over Southampton in February 2017, there was also a 57th-minute departure for Fred after another anonymous performance from the Brazilian.
Fred has now failed to make it beyond the 64th minute of any of his last three starts spanning six weeks. While all players are expected to need some time to adapt to a new team in a new country, the midfielder’s current malaise is naturally drawing a brighter spotlight due to the £52 million outlay United parted with to get him through the door in the summer.
At 2-0 down for the seventh time this season, United’s travelling fans would have been forgiven for expecting some sort of reaction but they got nothing of the sort.
They continued to be tepid in attack and kamikaze at the back. It even took a couple of marginal offside decisions to keep the score down.
They finally showed signs of life in the 87th minute when substitute Marcus Rashford headed home from Ashley Young’s left-wing cross to halve the arrears, but one has to wonder what took them so long to inject some urgency into the evening.
As it is, they have spurned the opportunity to avoid the big guns. When their name comes out of the hat on Monday it will be with a wince that United fans await their opponents.
It could all have been different had they turned it on in Valencia on Wednesday, but instead we got yet more abject Manchester United misery.