MANCHESTER -- For one night only, Marouane Fellaini was a Manchester United hero. Such is the pathos of the Belgian's career at Old Trafford that his winning goal against Valencia came in a friendly match, and after spending his 15 minutes on the pitch being ironically cheered on each of his touches of the ball.
Fellaini's last-minute goal in United's 2-1 win on Tuesday was celebrated with a shy smile. It may end up being his final contribution for the club. A loan move to Napoli is edging towards completion as the clubs haggle over how much United pay of his wages.
Should a deal be done with Rafa Benitez, then Fellaini's continuing legacy will be his featuring in fans' all-time worst XI selections. He shall always be recalled as an ungainly totem of the ill-fated David Moyes regime, a last-minute panic buy at 27.5 million pounds who was actually available at 23 million pounds a few weeks earlier, and who subsequently looked more adrift than anyone in United's great lost season.
Had Fellaini regularly shown the promise of his Tuesday cameo, then he might still have a United future. Instead, he leads the list of departures, though, unlike unwanted and unloved flops Nani and Anderson, he actually has a suitor willing to engage his services. Somewhere under that tousled mane lies a footballer of genuine quality and danger. It just never manifested at United, where his highlights reel will almost certainly be led by that mazy run through Bayern Munich's midfield which ended with Fellaini, having lost all sense of control and direction, inexplicably knocking the ball into touch as he hurtled towards the touchline himself. It proved a symbol of the club's aimlessness of the time.
Though Ander Herrera impressed with his effervescence against Valencia, what United lacked was drive. Fellaini, despite the good-natured barracking, actually provided it, playing some decent one-twos and running from deep into promising areas. His goal came from the type of timely arrival that had long seemed a forgotten art among United midfielders. Were Benitez and his cohorts watching, they can only have been impressed. This was Everton's Fellaini, a player worth most of that money, rather than Old Trafford's sad clown.
"Reunited" was the title given to the first-team squad's Manchester homecoming, with attendant social media hashtag. Whichever marketing wonk came up with such a moniker might perhaps have been suggesting that the club's 2013-14 season was one of disunity, with factions pulling in different directions, as was clear. The applause afforded to Louis van Gaal ahead of his first home match in charge had a hopeful tinge to it. When a regime comes apart at the seams, as happened to United once Sir Alex Ferguson pulled the rug from under the club's feet in finally bowing to time, a dictator is often the most expedient option.
The thrills of a summer tour of the United States had not transferred to an Old Trafford that was deadly quiet at times on Tuesday. There is a sense of anticipation about van Gaal's revolutionary zeal, but also a recognition that the club faces a long way back to recover its previous position. Van Gaal's new charges had passed the ball no more than efficiently than Moyes' team often did, their passes spreading across the field but rarely picking the lock on an organised Valencia defence. Darren Fletcher's goal owed plenty to a deflection, while Fellaini's strike resulted from keeper Diego Alves losing his bearings.
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Talk that executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was in Cardiff to parley Real Madrid for the signature of Angel Di Maria is the type of news that worried United fans want to hear. Woodward better not show his face in M16 again if he repeats the transfer tomfoolery that landed only Fellaini last year. Herrera looks undaunted by being a United player, but the rest, aside from youngsters such as Tyler Blackett, Reece James and Michael Keane, have reputations scarred by their part in last season's downfall.
Woodward made great play of Juan Mata's January capture, but the Spaniard was especially disappointing against his former club. Van Gaal must relocate the playmaker who was Chelsea's Player of the Season twice in a row, but Old Trafford again seemed to sap his belief.
Were Di Maria to be landed, then he would arrive as a player almost alone in United's ranks in being able to carry the ball for long distances. Adnan Januzaj might join him, but still has much to prove. Marcos Rojo, who has reportedly demanded a move from Sporting Lisbon, can fill a hole on the left side of United's defence, where both Blackett and James showed promise against Valencia without ever looking like an answer. So too perhaps Daley Blind, whose versatility across three possible roles can point the way to van Gaal's expectations of his players as he seeks to reinvent a team whose approach was crashingly linear last season.
There will almost certainly be no place for Fellaini, but at least he signed off with a smile.