Once the object of derision, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini now a feature

'He's not had the smoothest of starts, but I've been impressed with him this season' Ryan Giggs tells Andy Mitten as Marouane Fellaini finally seems to be finding his place at Manchester United.
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini celebrates scoring the opening goal during the club's 2-1 win over Stoke City on Tuesday in the Premier League. Peter Powell / EPA / December 2, 2014
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini celebrates scoring the opening goal during the club's 2-1 win over Stoke City on Tuesday in the Premier League. Peter Powell / EPA / December 2, 2014

MANCHESTER // Even in the most despairing months of last season, when Manchester United’s form was mirrored by the chronic lack of confidence shown by midfielder Marouane Fellaini, the demeanour of the Belgian giant didn’t change around United’s training ground.

The new signing had been injured before properly showing fans what he could do, his inflated transfer fee had been mocked and he had done little to assure United fans that he had a future at the club.

There wasn’t a lot of love for Fellaini, his £27.5 million (Dh158m) fee appearing to match his stature, not talent.

He was afforded the briefest honeymoon period after signing at the start of September 2013 and the street vendors selling Fellaini wigs outside Old Trafford did good business for only a week or two – and solely because he was David Moyes’ only signing of a transfer window the likes of which United hope never to experience again.

A dreadful performance in the Manchester derby saw the criticism start and it wasn’t without foundation.

Yet he never lost the support of his teammates, nor the staff he worked with every day. Coaches who knew him well like Phil Neville said he just needed a goal, but Neville later departed, damaged by being one of Moyes’ men.

Fellaini stayed, though it is understood United were willing to let him go to Napoli in August. Injured, he stayed in England and, now recovered, his fortunes have finally started to pick up.

“He’s really professional and wants to do well,” said Ryan Giggs. “You want him to do well because he’s such a nice lad. He’s humble, quiet, wants to improve. He’s really good to coach because if you ask him to do a job he’ll do it.

“He gives everything in the gym and in every training session. He’s not had the smoothest starts, but I’ve been impressed with him this season.

“He can play as a No 10 if you want to go a little bit more direct or he can play more in midfield. He knows what he’s good at, too.

“He knows he’s not going to be dribbling past players or switching the ball 50 yards, knows his limitations so he keeps it simple, gets in goalscoring positions and does his defensive duties. He’s quite a straightforward player and if you play to his strengths he can be a devastating player.”

Fellaini was prominent in United’s poor first-half performance against Stoke City on Tuesday. The Belgian was profligate in possession and fans at a freezing Old Trafford saw him fall clutching his neck just as Steven N’Zonzi struck Stoke’s equaliser.

The man teammates called “Felli” had been felled after a tackle on his lower leg, not his neck. He’s no cheat, but it looked suspect.

N’Zonzi was only levelling Fellaini’s good work in putting United ahead after 21 minutes, when Ander Herrera, that buzz of creative energy unleashed in the 16th minute against Hull on Saturday and starting against Stoke, had missed his side’s best opportunity by failing to hit the target from 15 yards after being set up by Robin van Persie, but he hit a high, left-footed hanging cross towards United’s back post.

Fellaini rose early, attacked the ball and met the cross with his forehead, putting it past Asmir Begovic.

Injury kept him out of the side at the beginning of the season and fans wouldn’t have been surprised to see him depart, but Fellaini has started United’s last six matches since coming on as a game-changing half-time substitute at West Bromwich Albion on October 20, when he scored in a 2-2 draw.

United have won their last four games and are on target to reach their 2014/15 goal of a top-four finish. Fellaini has been one of the best players, usually part of a midfield diamond which has started to dominate opponents.

David Moyes didn’t sign him with the intention of playing him in United’s biggest games, but his current boss started him against Arsenal and it wouldn’t surprise to see him begin United’s next two matches at third-placed Southampton and United’s biggest rivals, Liverpool.

“His strengths are receiving the ball near the attack and his work rate which sees him move up and down,” said Giggs. “He’s someone who, on his day, is hard to defend against as United found so many times against Everton. Opponents don’t know when to, or who should pick him up, the midfielder or the centre half. He is also able to score all kinds of goals - headers, with his feet like at West Brom or he can bring the ball down on his chest and bring other players into play.”

With his confidence up, Fellaini is becoming once more the player whom Moyes was so anxious to bring with him to Old Trafford.

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Published: December 3, 2014 04:00 AM

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