Apart from Juan Mata’s winning goal, the loudest cheer at Old Trafford on Thursday night was for Marouanne Fellaini.
With 82 minutes gone, Marcos Rojo launched one of his long, left-footed kicks forward under pressure from the Rostov forwards. Despite having two players close by, Fellaini controlled the ball with his chest, flicked it over Rostov’s no. 89, came out with the ball and passed it forward. The Stretford End roared and started another chant of ‘Do, do, do, do, Marouanne Fellaini’ to the tune of Black Lace’s inimitable ‘Do The Conga’. For a man aware of his limitations, a man who knows he’s more messy than Messi when it comes to attempted dribbles, it was impressive play.
Four minutes later, the 29-year-old attacked with the ball and was brought down in the midfield. Again, he was generously applauded for his efforts – that at the end of the week where he was sent the wrong way by Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante ahead of Kante’s winning goal at Stamford Bridge.
There was cheering for Fellaini when he replaced the injured Paul Pogba in the 47th minute against Rostov, with the most expensive player in the world getting a muted reaction as he left the field.
Fellaini might have been surprised as he took to the field for United for the 34th time this season – and over half of those appearances have been from the bench - for he feels that he’s stigmatised by many United fans as a David Moyes’ signing, an overpriced, last-minute panic buy on the summer transfer deadline day in 2013. The £27 million fee for the number 27 did seem excessive for a player who doesn’t possess the highest technical ability. The fee and the timing of the transfer wasn’t his fault, nor was it his fault that he joined a much bigger club reeling after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, but Fellaini became the embodiment of a club in relative crisis.
Yet he’s now in his fourth season at United and in Jose Mourinho, a man who likes big players, he’s with a manager who respects him and thinks that he offers a versatile and physical threat absent in others. Mourinho can play Fellaini as a number 10 or in a deeper role. He sees him as a player who can get into goalscoring positions and also carry out defensive duties, one who plays to instruction.
Mourinho may fall out with a different person each day of the week, but he keeps the majority of his players close to him. They mostly like working with him and under him and see him as a players’ man.
That’s certainly Fellaini’s opinion, though every United manager he’s worked for has rated him. Moyes, who bought him to be effective at West Brom or Stoke away rather than against top teams in the Champions League, obviously thought highly of him and still does, while assistant manager Ryan Giggs said: “His work rate sees him move up and down and never stop. Opponents don’t know when or who should pick him up, the midfielder or the centre half. He’s someone who, on his day, is hard to defend against as we found when we played him at Everton.
“He’s also able to score all kinds of goals - headers, with his feet, or he can bring the ball down on his chest and bring other players into play.”
Louis Van Gaal also passed on the opportunity to shift Fellaini out when he was getting rid of players like Angel di Maria, Daniel Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. There were times when Fellaini was the most unpopular United player; one cheered ironically when he came on in a pre-season friendly against Valencia in 2014. It would get worse, for there was no irony in the cheers when he was taken off against West Ham at Old Trafford in a cup game a year ago – a month before being the best player in the replay at Upton Park. And he was jeered by some United fans in the December league win against Spurs when he came on as a substitute.
When times are bad – and United had won two of their previous 12 league games before that Spurs’ win – and fans are looking for a scapegoat, Fellaini usually fits the bill, yet the jeers prompted a backlash. A week later at West Brom, the big Belgian was cheered by a raucous United end when he came on as substitute.
Giggs also said about the quiet man known as Felli to his teammates, who supposedly cried with joy when he learnt United were going to sign him: “He’s really professional and wants to do well. You want him to do well because he’s such a nice lad. He's humble, quiet, always 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 really wants to do well at Manchester United.”
United’s next game is at Middlesbrough on Sunday, a meeting of the two teams who’ve drawn the most matches in the Premier League this season and a game Mourinho thinks his side will lose – though nobody believes him when he says that.
Fellaini put his hood up and didn’t speak to journalists after the Rostov game, but Mata did, when he was under no illusions about the importance of beating Middlesbrough, especially after the draw against Bournemouth at Old Trafford. “We know we have to add points in the Premier League because our rivals are winning games. We need to win games and hopefully we can do it on Sunday. It’s going to be tough because they have changed their manager (Mata’s compatriot Aitor Karanka).
For them it's a new start and everyone is going to be really, really motivated and we have to deal with that.”
That will be the last game before a two week international break. Then, in a hectic April, United will play eight games. One will be against Fellaini’s former club Everton, two of them will be against Anderlecht in the last eight of the Europa League, the Brussels club where Fellaini started out as a youth player. With 74 Belgian caps to his name and closing in on a decade in England’s top-flight, he can look with some satisfaction on how things have turned out for him, in spite of all the doubters.