Manchester United miss chance to top group after messy display at Mestalla
Young Boys' victory over Juventus gifted United a chance they never looked like taking
Phil Jones of Manchester United reacts after he scores an own goal during the Champions League Group H match against Valencia at Estadio Mestalla. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Valencia 2 Manchester United 1
Manchester United are through to the next round of the Champions League, but then everyone knew that already. They are also not very good, but then everyone knew that too.
Switzerland’s Young Boys defeated Juventus 2-1 to gift United the chance to overhaul them and take first place, but they did not accept it. Instead, they were beaten by Valencia at Mestalla, limping into the last 16. On this evidence, and all that has accumulated this season, it is hard to imagine them getting further than that; the surprise may be that they got this far.
It was striking enough that United had already secured a place in the knock-out phase given how poorly they have played in this competition; actually winning the group would have been too much. Yet that, unexpectedly, was a possibility.
“I don’t think this result will be too important or make the difference,” Mourinho had admitted before this game, while Sunday’s meeting with Liverpool – currently 16 points ahead of United – was always going to be more significant. Perhaps that lack of expectation helps justify this performance, although for so much of the night the explanation appeared rooted in something more simple, their play.
United’s first shot on target did not come until the 73rd minute and while a Marcus Rashford goal with four minutes to go awoke the prospect of another late comeback that could even have been completed by Juan Mata in the final minute, it wasn’t to be.
United, then, were defeated in Spain. Valencia, 15th in La Liga, had a little joy. Yet there was also frustration, a feeling of what might have been, but for their own mistakes, and the Marouane Fellaini handball that finally put them out, neither forgiven nor forgotten here.
As for Marcelino, he admitted that Valencia’s visit to Eibar on Saturday occupied his thoughts. But for some players, Paul Pogba particularly, there were points to prove if not to be won. For the managers, too.
Jorge Mendes had insisted Mourinho is happy at United – only for Mourinho to note that his agent said that, not him. The word surrender isn’t in my vocabulary, Marcelino said, using the word “surrender”, and his president pointedly, publicly embraced him, but the white hankies had been out – that classic Spanish sign of protest.
Valencia, already out but qualified for the Europa League, have won just three league games, drawing nine of 15. No one in Spain has scored fewer, with Michy Batshuayi likely to be sent back to Chelsea this Christmas. Yet they scored here, and swiftly.
The quarter hour had just passed when Carlos Soler scored the opening goal, with the outside of his right boot. Made, like so much of what happened in the first half, by Santi Mina and Piccini, it had fallen to him when Phil Jones attempted to head clear.
Mata had a shot blocked at the near post, the ball seeming to strike Mouctar Diakhaby’s arm, and Pogba somehow shot past the same post and wide. There were occasional glimpses from United, their play improved when it passed through Mata, but they were brief. They might have been unexpectedly significant, too: just after Mata’s shot, news came through that Young Boys had scored against Juventus. If United could come back they could actually win this group, probably helping their task in the next round.
But Valencia looked more likely to score and might have added to their lead. Batshuayi headed over Piccini’s cross and just before half-time sliced wide from inside the area. Between those two opportunities Soler was denied, Diakhaby tumbling as he tried to reach a loose ball by the six-yard box, and Dani Parejo turned inside Fellaini only to be stopped by Fred and Eric Bailly diving in front of him. The half ended with Mina, Soler and Piccini playing their way in again, United exposed on their left, and with Mestalla standing to applaud.
The second began with them on their feet again, gifted a second goal, a portrait of United, Jones hapless at the heart of it. Soler’s ball was bent beyond the backline with the outside of his boot; Batshuayi chased but was not so close as to justify what followed, Jones reaching out to nudge the ball back towards his goalkeeper but instead nudging it past Sergio Romero and into his own net. It was the first own goal United had scored in the Champions League since 2011. Back then it was Jones, too.
But this was not just him, it was all of them: collectively, individually, absolutely, United were poor.
Mourinho watched from the bench he never left as Denis Cheryshev’s deflected shot drifted wide, and Bailly thumped over. He made changes – Rashford was introduced for Fred among others – but little truly changed, even with Young Boys adding a second against Juventus. United had been offered an opportunity there, but here Valencia were comfortable, superior, and Santi Mina almost added a third before Ferran Torres, on as a sub, struck over. – Guardian