Marouane Fellaini and team-mates celebrate his winning goal against Young Boys

How we qualified in the Champions League

Thursday 29 November 2018 15:42

We may have done it the hard way, but it’s always positive to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League without requiring a result in what could be a physically and emotionally draining last match. We look back at how Jose Mourinho’s Reds safely navigated a route out of a challenging Group H…

Getting off to a flyer

Our first match in Group H handed us an away trip to Bern to meet a Young Boys side celebrating their first ever entry into the Champions League group stages. The home fans were clearly up for this historic occasion, but their excitement was soon checked by a dominant performance from the Reds who flew into a 2-0 lead at half-time thanks to a double from Paul Pogba, followed by a first goal of the season for Anthony Martial. Three points on the board and “job done” according to Jose Mourinho. “After the first goal the game was in control,” he said after the game. “After that, it was just a question of scoring the goals to give us the stability we needed for the second half."

Highlights: Young Boys 0 United 3 Video

Highlights: Young Boys 0 United 3

Paul Pogba's brace and Anthony Martial's finish earned an impressive 3-0 win at Young Boys in September...

Staying tight at the back

The first five games saw us concede just two goals, one each home and away against the attacking might of Juventus, and, up to matchday five, no team has conceded fewer than us in the group stages this season. Defensive fluidity and an element of rotation was key – two members of the back four were ever-present through the group stage to date, with Luke Shaw nailing down the left-back slot and Chris Smalling appearing as centre-back in all five matches. Smalling was joined by Victor Lindelof in three of the five games, while Eric Bailly (Valencia) and Phil Jones (Young Boys) played their part at Old Trafford. The right-back berth was shared by Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Diogo Dalot, the latter handed a memorable debut by Mourinho away in Switzerland.

Pulling one out of the bag

Let’s face it, very, very few gave United a chance away to in-form Juventus, who hadn’t lost at home in the group stages since 2009 (against Bayern Munich), who had won 10 out of 11 in Serie A to that point and who looked to be running away with Group H at a canter. But we all know what happened next. Jesse Lingard summed up the spirit in this United squad when he said after our 2-1 triumph: “This is a big, big result. The team pulled together, and the staff. We come together as a family and do the job on the pitch. We stick together through hard and good times, and it puts us on a high."

Staying patient

The old adage of patience being a virtue was never more apparent than in this season’s Champions League group stage. That paid maximum dividends in the bearpit atmosphere of Turin’s Allianz Stadium when a 1-0 deficit was turned into a 2-1 win in the space of five late minutes, and again versus Young Boys, this week, when Marouane Fellaini stayed calm under pressure to fire the Reds into the knockout stages. And remember, only the crossbar stopped Marcus Rashford’s 86th-minute free-kick from winning the game for us at home to Valencia. Good things come to those who wait, it seems.

Highlights: Juventus 1 United 2 Video

Highlights: Juventus 1 United 2

What a result! Watch how Jose Mourinho's men pulled off a stunning win in Turin...

Stealing the show

Qualification from Group H has been a collective effort, with 20 different players contributing to those hard-fought wins and that single battling draw. But games are often elevated by moments of individual brilliance all across the pitch. Look at Pogba’s scene-setting display in the opening game against Young Boys, described by The Times as “one of his best performances in a United shirt, the performance of a winner, creator and ruthless operator.” Then there was Juan Mata’s exquisite pin-point free-kick that sparked the Reds' revival away to Juventus, and, at the other end of the pitch, David De Gea’s astonishing claw-like save on Tuesday.

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