Manchester United were made to settle for second place in Champions League Group H after a narrow defeat against Valencia in Spain.
Carlos Soler fired the hosts ahead and an own goal from Phil Jones early in the second period doubled their lead. Substitute Marcus Rashford pulled one back for the much-changed Reds in the closing stages, but it came too late to mount a comeback.
The disappointing result meant Jose Mourinho's men had to settle for the runners-up spot, and a potentially more challenging last-16 tie, as Juventus clinched top place in the group despite losing 2-1 against Young Boys in Switzerland.
Given Valencia’s domestic struggles and the fact they were already assured of finishing third and gaining Europa League football before kick-off, the Reds’ final European assignment of 2018 was played in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd at the impressive Mestalla Stadium, where 2,000 travelling fans backed the team magnificently throughout.
United began with former Valencia men Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira either side of Romelu Lukaku in an attacking trio, but it was the hosts who made the early running. Sergio Romero – making his first start since 25 September in goal – kept out a low cross-cum-shot from Santi Mina before Geoffrey Kondogbia poked an effort wide after captain Daniel Parejo’s shot cannoned off Jones.
Valencia took the lead in the 17th minute when Soler drilled a low shot into the bottom corner past Romero after Mina’s cross was initially cleared by Marcos Rojo. A much-changed United enjoyed plenty of possession but struggled to seriously trouble Jaume Domenech in the Valencia goal, which was made more frustrating by the news that Young Boys had taken the lead against Juventus through Guillaume Hoarau’s penalty.
The closest the Reds came was when Marouane Fellaini headed Pereira’s corner towards the back post where Paul Pogba was unmarked but the Frenchman could only steer his shot wide from close range. At the other end, the hosts could have increased their advantage on two occasions before the break through Michy Batshuayi, but the on-loan Chelsea striker could only divert Cristiano Piccini’s right-wing delivery over the crossbar with his shoulder before slicing another effort wide from the edge of the box.
The Reds made an enforced change at the break as Ashley Young came on to replace Rojo, who was later confirmed as being injured by the manager, at left-back. But, within 90 seconds of the restart, it was 2-0 to the home side as Jones unfortunately poked the ball past Romero as he tried to hold off Batshuayi, who latched onto a through pass from first goalscorer Soler. Jones claimed he was being pulled back by Valencia's no.23, but his appeals to Bulgarian referee Georgi Kabakov were ignored.
Valencia continued to pose a threat as Russian winger Denis Cheryshev saw a shot deflected narrowly over the crossbar. The boss introduced the exuberance of Rashford and Jesse Lingard from the substitutes' bench, in place of Fred and Lukaku, which helped to give the Reds an added injection of energy and pace in a bid to get back into the game.
Eric Bailly, who played in Spain with his former club Villarreal, volleyed way over the crossbar from inside the box after Pereira's corner was palmed away by Domenech before our no.15 had a go at goal himself from the edge of the box, which was parried away by the Valencia keeper. Pogba also twice called Domenech into action with decent attempts at goal during the closing stages.
United at least maintained our positive record of scoring in all 11 competitive away games this season when substitute Rashford headed home Young's cross, after Lingard did well to keep the ball alive in the build-up.
The Reds rallied late on as Mata almost marked his return to Spain with a late equaliser but he couldn't connect cleanly with Pogba's scooped pass and it wasn't to be for United on what was an ultimately frustrating evening in Valencia.
Mourinho's men can now turn attention to Sunday’s testing trip to Anfield to face arch-rivals Liverpool in the Premier League (kick-off 16:00 GMT), before the Champions League last-16 draw on Monday, which is due to take place at 11:00 GMT in Nyon.
Valencia: Domenech; Piccini, Ruben Vezo, Diakhaby, Lato (Garay 51); Soler, Kondogbia, Parejo (c), Cheryshev (Torres 66); Batshuayi, Santi Mina (Rodrigo 68).
Subs not used: Neto, Coquelin, Lee, Wass.
Scorers: Soler 17, Jones (own goal) 47
United: Romero; Valencia (c), Jones, Bailly, Rojo (Young 46); Fred (Rashford 57), Fellaini, Pogba; Mata, Lukaku (Lingard 69), A. Pereira.
Subs not used: Grant, Garner, Herrera, Greenwood.
Booked: Valencia, Bailly, Rashford
Scorer: Rashford 87
Referee: Georgi Kabakov
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