What Man United supporters hoped would be a historic European night of old, ended with a narrow loss to Paul Pogba’s former club Juventus but highlighted the massive gap in quality between the two sides.
Manchester United is a club so desperately searching for a return to the heights which it enjoyed for so long under the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The Red Devils’ hiatus from Champions League competition two years ago signaled a dramatic drop in the club’s stock (both on and off the field), and although most supporters have since then began to accept that they will not be challenging for the Premier League title, they still demand that United compete with Europe’s elite and attempt to close the significant gap in quality.
After sweeping aside Young Boys rather untroubled and holding a tame Valencia side to a monotonous 0-0 draw, Juventus arrived at Old Trafford offering Mourinho’s United a chance to test themselves against Europe’s finest once again. A chance to see just how far away from the top they really are. The answer? Light years away.
The occasion was hyped with the return of “the magnificent number seven,” Cristiano Ronaldo, however the five-time Ballon d’Or winner received a slightly muted celebration by supporters perhaps unsure of how to react after recent allegations made against their former talisman.
However, it was Ronaldo who proved to be the catalyst for the only goal of the game as his cross from the by-line indirectly found its way to an unmarked Paulo Dybala, who stroked home from close range. It was evident early on that United were going to be chasing this game, but the gap in class and assured quality only became more overt the longer the game dragged on.
United struggled to keep possession against the Italian giants, and on those rare moments when finding themselves in the final third, looked clueless as how to penetrate the sturdy back line which featured Chiellini and Bonucci – two defenders which Mourinho said “could give some Harvard University classes about how to be a central defender.”
A horrifying Chris Smalling haircut is about the only thing in the United back line which strikes fear into opposition attackers now, where a lacklustre Victor Lindelof stands by his side. A far cry away from the defensive capabilities of previous centre-back partnerships. Ferdinand and Vidic, Pallister and Bruce, or Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen, who were the defensive duo who beat Juventus 3-2 in Turin to book their place in the 1999 Champions League final.
“I have to say Juventus are a different level and if people don’t want to accept that that is their problem,” Mourinho insisted in his post-match comments. A telling statement from the United head coach, who looked to deliver a pointed message to the board members at Old Trafford.
United’s only real opportunity came from a great turn and left-footed strike from Pogba which Szczesny saw fly out wide after ricocheting off the post and then the back of the keeper’s head.
Again we saw both sides of Pogba, a player who can be so frustrating to watch for Man United supporters. A player who possess such obvious ability, but too frequently demonstrates an inconsistency not just over the course of a season, but throughout the course of a single match.
Just before his shot – one of the moves of the game – Pogba carelessly gave the ball away under no pressure with a misplaced pass in the middle of the pitch and Juventus were on the attack.
At Pogba’s best, he can control the tempo of a game, spraying passes to any corner of the pitch, effortlessly gliding past players with his acceleration and quick feet. But at his worst, the Frenchman cuts a frustrating figure, misplacing passes, switching off his concentration or not performing to the best of his obvious ability.
Pogba’s inconsistency has become too frequent a criticism of the recent World Cup winner, and in a game where he should have relished and thrived, he ultimately appeared second-rate against his midfield counterparts at Juventus.
Paul Scholes perfectly summed Pogba up in a recent interview with Andy Mitten for ESPN: “He does some of the best things in games, a great pass or dribble, a great touch or dribble. Then, five minutes later, he’ll do one of the worst things like his brain has switched off, like it’s all about him because he’s just shown everyone how good he is. That becomes easy to play against because you know that cockiness will come. Against Wolves, he showed a great touch to Fred but then the next minute he’d given the ball away in midfield, which led to a goal. That sums him up.
”We never saw that at Juventus, but [Pogba] was a smaller fish there. Look around that team, with Buffon, Pirlo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Marchisio: great experienced players. I loved that team, especially Pirlo and the way he was so relaxed as he controlled the game. Pogba was part of a great team but he’s come to United where he’s got nobody to control him like he had at Juventus.”
Although United are currently a world away Juventus, they are still favourites to finish second in Group H ahead of Young Boys and Valencia, and qualify for the last 16 of the tournament. They face Everton at Old Trafford and travel to Bournemouth in the Premier League, before they tackle Juventus again in Turin on November 7th.