Neil Humphreys: Fellaini and Mata finally come good for United
Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata once represented the failings of a coaching clown.
David Moyes was accused of bringing makeweights to Manchester United.
Fellaini arrived with an afro. Mata arrived in a helicopter. Both looked ridiculous.
The Belgian was soon dismissed as a clueless artisan among fading artists, all hustle and muscle with no finesse.
The Spaniard was considered damaged goods. Jose Mourinho had sold Moyes a dummy.
Mata's stylish flourishes lacked substance. Sceptical whisperers pursued him. He didn't retreat or defend. He lacked pace.
Among Chelsea's dizzying counter-attackers, he was a pedestrian. Among Moyes' muddled men, he was a liability.
Louis van Gaal appeared to share the sentiments of his old protege Mourinho.
Mata didn't conform to the collective. He freewheeled away from tight formations. He was surplus to requirements, along with the substandard Fellaini.
Except that they weren't. Against Liverpool on Sunday, they were United's best performers in a thoroughly deserved 2-1 win.
A few good Moyes men had saved van Gaal's bad signings, just as they had against Tottenham.
Fellaini rediscovered his brutish, often brilliant, Everton game as Mata discovered an unexpected tenacity to convince their suspicious manager.
Circumstances beyond their control offered a shot at redemption and they took it. The door was opened by others, but they stood tall and walked through.
After consulting with his players, van Gaal finally accepted that 4-3-3 (or a 4-1-4-1) was the way forward.
But the formation depended on the return of United's most reliable quarterback, Michael Carrick, and a resilient, creative presence ahead of the ageing Englishman to take down his passes and compensate for his lack of pace.
Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria failed to meet those demands. The ball didn't stick in the final third.
So van Gaal turned to the Teflon chest of Fellaini.
The Belgian's aerial bullying of Emre Can caught the eye, but Fellaini's chest fits United's strategy like a Velcro glove. Against Liverpool, the ball never came back.
Instead, the Red Devils powered through the inside left channel, a road much travelled against Tottenham.
Fellaini and the equally resurgent Ashley Young filleted Can.
When the Reds roused themselves in the second half, Fellaini offered respite, a breather, a chance to hit that Teflon chest and regroup.
In the air and on the deck, he prevailed. When the ball sticks to Fellaini, opponents can't twist.
Moyes deserves credit for buying him. But van Gaal salvaged him.
Liverpool's central defenders were the victims of a turkey shoot, caught in the triangular crossfire of Carrick, Fellaini and Ander Herrera.
United hadn't held Anfield's midfield in such a vicious headlock since the vein-bulging Roy Keane ran roughshod across enemy terrain.
The Red Devils' newfound dominance created an opening on the right flank and Mata filled the vacancy. But this is a new Mata, reconditioned and recalibrated in service of his manager's mission.
Against Tottenham and Liverpool, he bore closer resemblance to the kind of player Mourinho might have kept.
His scissor-kick acrobatics delighted the United faithful, but it was very much in keeping with the old Mata; a momentary explosion of unrivalled brilliance.
His first goal would have pleased his manager more. Apart from the exquisite build-up, Mata was quick, efficient and decisive; qualities that often eluded him in the past.
There is less Spanish matador and more raging bull about Mata now. He goes in for the quick kill and satisfies both the purist and the statistician. He has scored 14 times in his last 32 appearances.
In the process, he has shaken off his reputation of being a non-essential luxury item. He didn't step out of di Maria's shadow. He stepped out of his down.
Van Gaal even emphasised the aesthetic nature of his winger's double, combining panache with ruthless penetration from first move to last.
The Dutchman has quietly and wisely stopped talking about his philosophy because there already was one at the club - the Manchester United philosophy.
Midfield dominance and incisive wing play were once the hallmarks of United's halcyon days. At the Theatre of Dreams, the greatest shows always included beauty and the beast.
At the moment, Fellaini and Mata are capable of playing both roles.
Juan Mata was very good. He has always played well with me in my opinion. But sometimes you also need balance in your team and you have to select other players. Now he has played very well and did this position very well.
— Louis van Gaal on Juan Mata
He has those qualities now, at this moment, he can contribute a lot. That is why he is playing. He also allows me to give balance to the team and that is important for a manager who is looking for balance.
— Louis van Gaal on the physical presence and aerial threat of Marouane Fellaini
Frenetic race to the finish line
The battle for Champions League qualification in the English Premier League took another twist at the weekend with all of the contenders for a top-four finish bar Liverpool winning. Chelsea, six points clear at the summit with a game in hand, appear destined for the title and, with it, a place in the Champions League, leaving six teams to fight it out for the three remaining qualifying berths. With eight matches remaining (nine for Chelsea), AFP assesses the runners and riders in the race for a spot in Europe's elite competition.
(Played 30, points 61, goal difference +34)
Consecutive away defeats by Liverpool and Burnley, allied to a chastening Champions League exit against Barcelona, have left the defending champions looking vulnerable.
Having been level on points with Chelsea on New Year's Day, their grip on second place is now under threat from a resurgent Arsenal and Manchester United.
- Remaining fixtures: Crystal Palace (A), Man United (A), West Ham (H), Aston Villa (H), Tottenham (A), QPR (H), Swansea (A), Southampton (H).
(Played 30, points 60, goal difference +27)
In trademark fashion, Arsene Wenger's side appear to have timed their surge for a top-four finish to perfection. Saturday's hard-fought 2-1 win at Newcastle United was their sixth in succession and their ninth in their last 10 league matches.
- Remaining fixtures: Liverpool (H), Burnley (A), Chelsea (H), Hull (A), Swansea (H), Man United (A), Sunderland (H), West Brom (H).
(Played 30, points 59, goal difference +25)
Following months of underwhelming displays under new manager Louis van Gaal, United have suddenly clicked into gear, beating Tottenham 3-0 and then recording a superb 2-1 victory at Liverpool on Sunday.
Back-to-back fixtures against City and Chelsea will test the durability of their resurgence, but there are signs of a swagger returning to Old Trafford.
- Remaining fixtures: Aston Villa (H), Man City (H), Chelsea (A), Everton (A), West Brom (H), Crystal Palace (A), Arsenal (H), Hull (A).
(Played 30, points 54, goal difference +12)
Last season's surprise runners-up saw a 13-game unbeaten run ended by Sunday's loss to United, which left Brendan Rodgers' team five points below the Champions League places.
Had shown scintillating form since Christmas, but with trips to Arsenal and Chelsea awaiting, another top-four finish looks a tall order.
- Remaining fixtures: Arsenal (A), Newcastle (H), Hull (A), West Brom (A), QPR (H), Chelsea (A), Crystal Palace (H), Stoke (A).
(Played 30, points 53, goal difference +21)
Ronald Koeman's side continue to defy expectations and have come through a sticky patch that saw them draw at home to West Ham and lose to Liverpool and West Brom.
A Champions League place now seems unlikely, but Europa League qualification (requiring a top-six finish) would still represent a fine achievement.
- Remaining fixtures: Everton (A), Hull (H), Stoke (A), Tottenham (H), Sunderland (A), Leicester (A), Aston Villa (H), Man City (A).
(Played 30, points 53, goal difference +5)
Inspired by the sensational form of Harry Kane, Tottenham have enjoyed memorable wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, but inconsistency means they have never won more than three games in succession.
A Europa League place may now represent the summit of their ambitions, although a relatively benign run-in could yet offer more.
- Remaining fixtures: Burnley (A), Aston Villa (H), Newcastle (A), Southampton (A), Man City (H), Stoke (A), Hull (H), Everton (A).