Bruno Fernandes

Was this United's best-ever World Cup?

Monday 19 December 2022 12:45

After 64 games and 172 goals, the 2022 World Cup had the showpiece event its prestige deserves – two of the planet’s greatest teams, powered by a couple of its most heralded players, going toe-to-toe across 120-plus heartstopping minutes.

One team had to win, the other had to lose.

Congratulations to Argentina. Commiserations to France. Well done, Lisandro Martinez. Hard luck, Raphael Varane.

Future generations will look back on ‘the greatest’ of all World Cup deciders, illuminated by that rarest of beasts – a final hat-trick – while one of the very best to ever play the sport finally achieved his career apotheosis.

Aside from Messrs Messi and Mbappe though, and away from a football-mad nation wildly celebrating its third global title: was this the best-ever World Cup for Manchester United and our players?

How the Reds reacted to the World Cup final


Martinez and Varane express their contrasting emotions, as United team-mates post messages of support.

For the first time, a Red was guaranteed a winners’ medal even before the final kicked off.

Martinez was the man who could eventually celebrate and despite not making it onto the field at the Lusail Stadium – discounting his typically fevered reactions to each and every Albiceleste goal – he played a vital part in Argentina’s third World Cup triumph as a whole.

In doing so, he became just the fifth United representative to lift the famous trophy, following on from Paul Pogba in 2018 and three English Reds back in 1966: Sir Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and John Connelly.

Martinez becoming a world champion should immediately elevate the 2022 World Cup as a particularly memorable one in United’s history, but it would be remiss to ignore the efforts of the other Reds who contributed to the tournament, with only Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City boasting more participants in Qatar.

For starters, Varane recovered from an injury that looked like it could scupper his tournament before it had started to guide Les Bleus to a second successive final.

His calmness and leadership from the back provided a ballast for a relatively inexperienced and injury-hit France, who were ultimately just a couple of kicks away from becoming the first side in 60 years to claim back-to-back World Cups.

Rapha and Licha were our only representatives from the semi-finals onwards, with 10 Reds unfortunately bowing out during a dramatic two days of quarter-final play. That number, in itself, is more than competed at every other finals before 2002.

Portugal’s 1-0 defeat to surprise package Morocco was arguably the biggest shock, but a bad day for Fernando Santos’s side could barely obscure a brilliant tournament performance from Bruno Fernandes.

Our playmaker was included in Opta’s Team of the Tournament, based on the Opta Index Scoring System, and only Messi and Mbappe could beat his tally of five goal involvements at the tournament. Fernandes scored twice in the 2-0 win over Uruguay and provided three assists for his team-mates, with two Man-of-the-Match showings in four games.

After starting the tournament on the bench, Diogo Dalot’s contribution from right-back wasn’t too bad either, as the right-back benefited from a couple of defensive injuries to play a big part in Portugal’s run to the last eight.

He departed the defeat to Morocco early with an apparent hamstring injury, and Erik ten Hag will be hoping that’s not an issue that bleeds into the resumption of the domestic season, as Dalot has also been fantastic for United this term.

England’s long wait for a major trophy will tick on, after that heartbreaking defeat to France, but all three Reds in Gareth Southgate’s squad can look back proudly at the tournament.

Marcus Rashford was the Three Lions’ joint-top goalscorer, netting within seconds of his introduction against Iran before a decisive brace in the 3-0 win over Wales. No-one – not even Mbappe or Messi – comes close to our no.10’s 1.93 goals per 90 record in Qatar.

Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw were reliable regulars at the back for Gareth Southgate, as England kept three clean sheets in five games.

Shaw’s assist for Jude Bellingham in that Iran win and Maguire’s totemic defensive performance in the tight 0-0 draw with the United States particularly stand out, and the latter also made it into Sky Sports’ Team of the Tournament, with the broadcaster saying the centre-back deserved huge credit for performing as he did under such scrutiny.

Ten Reds appeared in the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup, but who was our best performer overall?poll

Ten Reds appeared in the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup, but who was our best performer overall?

Most Brazilians will want to avoid dwelling on this tournament, at least until the dust is settled, with the Selecao dumped out by Croatia on penalties in the last eight – the fifth tournament in a row in which they’ve been eliminated at the hands of a European side.

Alex Telles, Fred and Antony all appeared and contributed for Tite’s side but Casemiro lived up to his role as one of the world’s great central midfielders.

The 30-year-old shone during the group stage, scoring a brilliant winner against Switzerland to see Brazil through with a game to spare.

After two penalty misses from two in that Croatia shootout, he stayed calm and composed to slot home his spot-kick and ultimately was unlucky to be on the losing side as the world was denied the Argentina v Brazil semi-final showdown it craved.

He could make a claim to be included in the official Team of the Tournament, when it is announced, and United legend Bryan Robson has already selected Casemiro and former Real Madrid team-mate Varane in his dream XI.

The Netherlands' Tyrell Malacia didn't make it on to the pitch in Qatar but will no doubt benefit from the experience of being around Louis van Gaal and his squad, while Facundo Pellistri, Christian Eriksen and Hannibal will be disappointed to have exited at the group stage - although the first two should now be raring to go for the restart and the latter is already back in action with Birmingham City in the Championship.

How United's top World Cup performers make the transition from starring in Qatar to returning to the bread-and-butter of English festive football remains to be seen. How does Martinez go again after such a career high? How do Varane and our defeated quarter-finalists recover from their lows?

Of course, the fascinating answer is that we don't know. We've never had a World Cup at this time of year before: it's unique.

But Ten Hag and his coaching staff must be delighted with the way the majority of his players have taken a largely positive start to the campaign with United and translated it to their national sides.

After arguably the best World Cup ever from the club's perspective - maybe on a par with 1966, when the tournament was half the size - we just can't wait to get domestic football back and find out the answers to our questions. See you on Wednesday!

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.