Marouane Fellaini can't shake his association with Man United's decline
As dreadful as Manchester United were in the first half of their 2-1 defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, with several key players missing from the starting lineup, it would be hard to argue that it had anything to do with the absence of Marouane Fellaini.
The Belgian midfielder essentially confirmed his place in the Europa League final team when picking up a red card at Manchester City two weeks ago. With the squad so thin thanks to injuries -- meaning fatigue levels are high -- he should be well-rested for Stockholm after the three-match ban.
While City's Sergio Aguero conned the referee after he initiated a clash of heads with Fellaini before jumping to the floor, the United man exhibited his naivety in falling for the trick.
This act came on the back of a few half-decent performances from Fellaini, which is fairly typical. As soon as he began to win over the odd fan or two, he reminds them all of why they didn't like him in the first place.
Fellaini, who is available for the league game at Southampton on Wednesday, would have to be a fantastic footballer for fans to be able to disassociate him with what he represents to them. And he isn't.
As the sole summer-of-2013 signing of David Moyes, whose stint in charge started the decline of Manchester United, he will forever be linked with the failure that that manager brought to the club.
During Fellaini's Everton days, plenty of were open to the idea of signing him. He often bullied United's midfield, leaving supporters -- having never found a Roy Keane replacement -- wanting for their own hard man in midfield. Every time Everton had a corner, United were left to fear the damage Fellaini may do.
But now that he's at United, he is generally unloved. The novelty Fellaini wigs sold outside Old Trafford didn't last long, with his unpopularity making their sale pointless.
Bizarrely, it wasn't just Moyes who was a fan, though. Louis van Gaal, whose reign was more successful than his predecessor, but still not good enough, took a shine to Fellaini. The Belgian made 65 appearances during Van Gaal's two seasons and was sometimes called upon as a striker, his height making him a good target man in the Dutchman's opinion.
There were plenty of reasons why United fans were relieved when Van Gaal was replaced by Jose Mourinho, but one was the belief that the new manager would have no time for Fellaini. Mourinho likes experts for each position, someone who commands his role in the team, but Fellaini is a player who has failed to excel anywhere.
Instead he is slow, doesn't pass well, isn't brave enough to play more challenging balls forward when an easier option is available and, bizarrely, very rarely scores headers, with his height apparently not the threat it should be from set pieces.
Yet, for whatever reason, Mourinho is a fan, and while he has singled out other players for poor performances time and again, for minor issues, Fellaini escapes criticism.
For example, Mourinho defended Fellaini after the red card at City and dismissed any blame from the midfielder after conceding an 89th-minute penalty against Everton, having just come off the bench. Fellaini's assist for Jamie Vardy's equalising goal in the Community Shield also went unnoticed.
Given the earache other players receive off Mourinho for lesser offences, it's incredible that even his general inability to make a positive difference to the team passes the manager by.
There are certainly worse players to have played for United, but it's hard to name one who has appeared in over 130 games for the club. Fellaini has made more league appearances than Robin van Persie and Jaap Stam.
Yet for all Fellaini's unpopularity, it's worth remembering that United's best moments of the past year have been a product of his contribution.
Last season, he scored the opening goal in United's 2-1 win over Everton in the FA Cup semifinal, a competition they hadn't won for 12 years previously.
This season, he scored in the League Cup semifinal against Hull, which led to a Wembley win vs. Southampton that saw United lift their second piece of silverware in nine months. Last Thursday, Fellaini scored the goal against Celta Vigo that has sent United to the Europa League final. If they win, they are in the Champions League next season.
At other clubs, this sort of intervention may make a player a hero, but at United, these moments of glory -- surrounded by otherwise substandard performances -- are just a stark reminder of how far the club has fallen.
Fellaini is symbolic of Moyes, decline and not being good enough. The chants of his name after a rare impressive moment often feel ironic, with grins around the stands showing the amusement at him managing to do something well.
The worst bit about it for United fans is that it's unlikely he will be leaving the club anytime soon, and even scoring in every semifinal won't make amends for that.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.