Fellaini boosted by vital goal
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Manchester United coach Phil Neville always maintained that all Marouane Fellaini needed was a goal.
The arrival of the Belgian midfielder from Everton for a seemingly excessive 27 million pounds was greeted with caution by Manchester United fans on transfer deadline day last September.
Fellaini didn't choose the fee, nor the timing of the move, nor was he aware of the shifts going on at the club he was joining, but he was immediately viewed as an expensive and underwhelming signing for a club who were linked with some of football's biggest names. His performances also failed to inspire.
"He'd probably say the same himself," said Neville when I interviewed him at the start of 2014. "We've not seen the best of him yet. He's someone who will be a success at this football club, I'm sure of that."
So why was Fellaini failing?
"A number of factors," said Neville. "He came into a team which wasn't clicking or flowing. Maybe being our only signing put pressure on him. He needs a goal. Once he scores that he'll be off and running. We haven't seen the best of him but we will.
"The team weren't winning so he was probably thinking 'this is my fault.' He needs to play in a team that wins and he needs to start scoring goals. Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra needed six months. Pat got subbed in his first two games. It takes time to settle on and off the field."
There was more.
"The training intensity is far greater than what Fellaini has been used to. We have 24 internationals here. The size of the club is different from anything that he's been used to too. It may be towards the back end of the season that we see the best of him."
The goal never did come. David Moyes, the man who brought Fellaini from his old club, was sacked, and while Fellaini was a popular figure around United's Carrington training ground for his polite manner and easygoing nature, United fans increasingly had their patience tested and became less forgiving.
The hirsute Belgian became a scapegoat for his ineffectiveness. His confidence looked shot. The bonanza expected by curly wig sellers outside Old Trafford never came close to materialising, though Fellaini enjoyed a couple of good away games with United to show that he wasn't devoid of the required talent. That was after he'd recovered from a wrist injury, from which he recuperated in southern Spain.
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He is an unmistakable and an approachable figure for those with awkward questions. In the aftermath of Belgium's come-from-behind win vs. Algeria on Tuesday, he didn't want to dwell on his United career so far.
"Football is like this," he said Tuesday night when it was put to him that he'd had a poor season. Players at the World Cup are usually instructed to talk about the game just gone and he was in a far happier mood after his game-changing performance for country rather than club.
Algeria -- backed by 5,000 fans -- were holding on to a shock lead when Fellaini came on for Mousa Dembele in the 65th minute.
Some United fans had wondered why the club had approached the former and not the latter a year ago, yet Fellaini was more effective than the man he replaced, adding impetus and energy to his side, passing crisply as well as quickly. Within five minutes he'd headed Belgium level with a header that his United teammate, Adnan Januzaj, described as unbelievable.
"I'm happy for Marouane, not just because I'm one of his good friends, but because it has been a long time that he didn't score," said the teenager.
"He has not scored since I have played alongside him. He's the type of player who can always help the team and he scored an unbelievable goal for us."
Belgium's coach, Marc Wilmots, had talked of the importance of the bench that Fellaini and Januzaj were asked to occupy for Belgium's first World Cup game in 12 years.
"[In the] changing room I wrote down on the board: 'The bench will make the difference.' And the bench made the difference," said a delighted Wilmots after the game.
The quietly spoken Fellaini was satisfied with his effort too.
"We were too nervous at the start with too much stress," he said. "I think that's normal, it was our first World Cup together. Algeria played well and we know that they have some good players, but we showed the character of Belgium and we played very well."
They did when he entered the field.
"It was a great goal and it was good for the team," he said, "but the most important thing today was the victory, it's important to win the first game.
"And for the second game it will be good for the confidence. My performance was OK. I scored a goal and the bench made the difference. It was a big impact from the bench."
Confidence is something that was lacking in Fellaini's game last season. He got a bit back in Belo Horizonte and the goal did come. Not only was it great, it mattered hugely too.