On a dank, dark, drizzly July afternoon in Oslo on Sunday, Manchester United made it five wins from six pre-season friendlies with a 3-0 victory over Norwegian mid-table side Valerenga.
Marouane Fellaini, who was heavily linked over the weekend with a move to Turkish side Galatasaray, headed the opening goal after 44 minutes from a Henrikh Mkhitaryan cross. Or ‘Hgurikh Michitaryan’ according to the issued team sheet.
The assured nature of quotes from Galatasaray’s sporting director Cenk Ergun led many United fans to think that the player was Istanbul-bound, the first major departure of the transfer window yet Jose Mourinho, who enjoys an excellent relationship with Fellaini, was hearing none of it.
“It is easier for Galatasaray to get me than Marouane,” said Mourinho when asked about Fellaini. “Marouane. Forget it. He’s very important for me.”
One sensed that it was no bluff, either. It’s understood that Fellaini would have considered leaving even after Mourinho arrived. A lucrative move to China was in his thoughts earlier this year for he felt that United fans did not rate him, that they associated him with the failed reign of David Moyes and a huge transfer fee and many fans would have concurred.
Yet Fellaini has long had an advantage: all four Manchester United managers that he’s played under have rated him.
They know he’s not a Roy Keane class midfielder, or even close to being the best midfielder at a club which finished sixth in the Premier League last season, but he is versatile and offers a different threat to any of his teammates. He also follows instructions.
As Mourinho was speaking, Fellaini walked alone into the centre of the pitch where he was deep in conversation on his mobile phone. He wants to play in the World Cup for Belgium next year and to do that he will need to be playing regularly.
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That would appear less likely if Chelsea’s Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic arrives, as expected, but then the same theory could have been applied when Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin joined the club.
Fellaini was one of nine outfield players substituted at half-time as Mourinho sought to use all 22 players he had brought over the North Sea on the day trip to the Norwegian capital.
It was the club’s first visit in five years to a country where almost one per cent of the entire 5.2 million population is a paid up member of the official United supporters’ club. Those fans paid an average of £100 (Dh482) per ticket and almost sold out Norway’s biggest stadium’s 27,000 capacity.
Playing against a side who are seventh in their 16-team top-flight, United dominated possession with Juan Mata and Paul Pogba the main creative forces, brightening up a bleak afternoon.
Mourinho switched his formation to 3-5-2 for the second period, one initially favoured by Louis van Gaal and one Mourinho is likely to use as he swaps things around.
Romelu Lukaku - ‘Romeru’ on the team sheet - took only two minutes to double United’s lead, using his strength to win a header at the near post.
Mourinho’s final change was to bring promising third choice goalkeeper Joel Pereira on for Romero on the hour. David de Gea did not travel.
Scott McTominay produced United’s third after 69 minutes, controlling a Demi Mitchell ball to strike his first goal with the first team.
Resembling a young Darren Fletcher, the energetic McTominay passes assertively. Other young United players – Timothy Fosu Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe and the balletic Andreas Pereira - performed well under little pressure in a subdued arena.
It is implausible that all will play regular first team football this season, but United boast some very talented young players.
Mourinho was satisfied with what he had seen.
“I thank Ronny (Deila) and his boys for the game they gave us,” he said. “I thank the referee because they had a professional training session – they are Champions League level. It was good for us because it was good pitch and the opponent was very well organised.”
“We tried to play from the back. After USA and jetlag it was good to play each player 45 minutes and give one more step. Now, we rest and then Sampdoria, then the official season starts.
Until now we have no injuries so let’s see if we can start the season in this positive situation.”
The team have already returned to Manchester and will fly to Dublin on Wednesday for that final friendly against Sampdoria before the European Super Cup against Real Madrid in Skopje on August 8 and a sterner test.