This was the not the Jekyll and Hyde United that has become our trademark under the boom or bust tenure of Jose Mourinho. But there was more late drama, even later goals and – extraordinarily – an against-the-odds win in fortress Juventus. This was United’s greatest European Cup night since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, perhaps even since we last won it in 2008.
Two months ago, Mourinho looked a dead man walking. A 3-1 defeat at West Ham – featuring moonlighting from makeshift centre back Scott McTominay – followed hot on the heels of a Carabao Cup KO at the hands of Mourinho’s former student Frank Lampard and his Derby side. Wolves had come to Old Trafford and dominated, with Valencia following suit a few days later. Talk of unrest, irreparable damage to dressing room reportedly shattered beyond repair, a toxic and divided fanbase and a series of useless, dross, discombobulated performances had seemingly spelt the end for the man brought in to restore a sleeping giant to former glories.
If that black September has been the nadir of Mourinho’s Manchester United, then what’s followed since has undoubtedly been the zenith. Some would argue – with total justification – that April’s climb off the canvas victory at the Etihad is our greatest result – if not performance – under the firebrand Portuguese.
For me, that honour falls to Wednesday night’s unbelievable, against the odds, smash and grab win over the mighty Juventus as a ground where they have lost twice in 36. This was a Juventus side with ten wins out of eleven in the league, unbeaten in 19 competitive ties and yet to concede a goal in Europe until last night. A side that has won seven successive Serie A titles and has made it to two out of the last four Champions League finals. A side who remain as favourites to go all the way in this competition. Yet our Manchester United – a United side that had been dubbed than worse that the David Moyes ‘era’ after our worst league start for 29 years – produced something so spectacular that I wondered if I had dreamed it.
The question remains: how can this team go from the low of defeats to Brighton, Tottenham, West Ham and Derby to this – our greatest, most memorable, never to be forgotten European night for over a decade. A night when we took on an undeafeated heavyweight boxer in his own backyard, played him at his own game, and left him punchdrunk, on the ropes and gasping for air. Manchester United became famous through defying all reasonable logic, yet this side have taken that to extremes and done so in a way that cannot be expected or predict. One of the best managers of all time tactically out-manouevered Max Allegri – potentially his successor – but yet got shown up by a rookie boss four months into his first managerial job. In a season during which Mourinho has got a lot wrong, here he turned the game as two of his substitutes – Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata – turned the tie upside down.
But then, we live in a world when Marouane Fellaini can frighten the life out of a Juventus central defence widely regarded as the best in the business – even if Messrs Chiellini and Bonucci do have a combined age of 65. Football wouldn’t be fun it it was predictable – and life as a Manchester United fan is anything but these days. What’s most difficult to fathom is that we are not a 90-minute Manchester United side. We’re Second Half FC – sometimes even ten minute FC.
On our day, we’ve proved we can beat anyone in world football. We’ve also proved we can get beat by anyone in world football, too. From losing at West Ham to passing the toughest test in Europe in two short months. This Manchester United side is the strangest I have known.