When Jose Mourinho talked back in March about Manchester United’s need to “grow up” in Europe after their shambolic exit to Sevilla, this is probably what he had in mind. On a night when they did not have everything their own way, United demonstrated nous, experience, maturity and, in man-of-the-match Paul Pogba, an invaluable injection of quality, to dispatch Young Boys and enjoy a winning start to their Champions League campaign.
This was not the breeze the scoreline might suggest and, on an unfamiliar artificial pitch that clearly took some getting used to, United had to work very hard for their victory but, in Pogba, they possessed the game’s outstanding player. His two goals gave United a firm foothold in the game. By the end, Anthony Martial had claimed his first United goal for eight months and Mourinho will also have been encouraged by a solid debut at right back from Diogo Dalot, a £19 million summer signing from Porto.
Anyone wondering why Mourinho persists with Pogba, and why Ed Woodward is so opposed to selling the midfielder, got their answer in the final 10 minutes of the first half when the Frenchman took hold of a game that was becoming a slog for United and turned it on its head.
It was a cruel introduction to the fine margins of Champions League football for debutants Young Boys, who had equipped themselves well and carved by far the better of the chances before Pogba hit them where it hurts. Much like Neymar, Pogba splits opinion like few others at the top level of the game but we would not talk about him so much if was not such a talent and there was a timely reminder here of what £89 million buys you when the mood takes him.
With Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford nominal figures out wide and Nemanja Matic struggling to stem the tide of counter attacks from Young Boys, United needed to someone to stamp their authority, to inject some quality. Step forward Pogba. Luke Shaw passed inside to Pogba who rolled the ball into the feet of Fred on the edge of the penalty area. The Brazilian tried to dart away from Mohamed Ali Camara but the Young Boys defender stuck out a foot and stole the ball away. The problem for him was Pogba picked up the loose ball and, with a wonderful shift of balance, the United captain flicked the ball quickly from his right on to his left before Camara had time to adjust and then, with minimal backlift, arrowed a shot into the top left corner. And, before long, it had got even better for Pogba and United, albeit on this occasion with a huge slice of good fortune.
Pogba clipped a cross out to Luke Shaw just inside the penalty area and the United left back hit his cross first time. Kevin Mbabu had his hands tucked in but referee Deniz Aytekin argued that he had intentionally handled the ball and awarded a penalty against the former Newcastle United right back. It seemed very harsh but Pogba showed little mercy from the spot. David Von Ballmoos did get a hand to the ball but, despite Pogba’s stuttering run up, there was enough power behind the shot to find the roof of the net.
What Mourinho would have given for that 2-0 advantage midway through the opening period. David De Gea had to be alert to tip over drives from Camara and Christian Fassnacht, the towering figure of Guillaume Hoarau had got above Victor Lindelof to head just wide and, when Diogo Dalot fell over, Fassnacht should have been much quicker getting off a shot that ended up being blocked by Lindelof.
In fairness, it was largely uncharacteristic of Dalot on the night. While there were much more experienced players having a difficult time of it, this was an encouraging United debut from the 19-year-old. Not perfect, no, but a positive first step and, like Shaw on the opposite side, he looked a fast, strong, aggressive full-back who wants to get forward.
Mourinho will have been a lot less enthused by what he saw from Martial. The United manager does not tend to give too much away on the touchline these days but his body language spoke volumes where Martial was concerned. Mourinho had his hands on his hips and gave a very obvious sigh when Martial failed to find a man with one cross and was later spinning around in frustration when, from an inviting break, the France forward again lost the ball with a misplaced pass.