Marouane Fellaini: Midfielder finally finding his feet at Old Trafford

'In the air he is one of the best in the league,' said team-mate Juan Mata

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The Independent Football

Five months is a long time in football. It was only in early July that Marouane Fellaini looked like an invisible man in the new Louis van Gaal Manchester United squad, which did not know how to lose as it toured the United States. His name would crop up in press conference conversation but he seemed inconsequential to the manager, much like Javier Hernandez and Wilfried Zaha.

That he should have persevered says much about how significant the move to Old Trafford from Everton was to him. When Rafael Benitez’s Napoli came in to seek a loan deal for him, they did not find a demotivated, dissatisfied Belgian, down on his luck, but one who would move heaven and earth to make something happen at United. “If Van Gaal says he doesn’t want him, he’ll go. Otherwise it looks hopeless,” one of the Napoli entourage said at that time.

Fellaini’s part in the 2-1 win over Stoke on Tuesday – his first Old Trafford goal in competitive football – suggests the corner has been turned. He satisfies one of the key demands Van Gaal has of a player – versatility. He provides the steel which was missing in front of the defence and a threat in the opposition penalty area. “In the air he is one of the best in the league,” his team-mate Juan Mata said of him. “He can score goals like he did [against Stoke] by arriving from the second line and he is very important. I’m very happy for him because he had difficult moments in the beginning. But he is very professional. He’s a very nice guy. I’m happy for him.”

 

That difficult beginning included the humiliating home defeat to his former club Everton, a year ago this week, when Fellaini and Ryan Giggs were given the runaround by Roberto Martinez’s young midfield. And it continued when he showed his face again at Old Trafford after the summer. His every touch was greeted by ironic cheers when he arrived as a substitute in the August friendly against Valencia. The late winner he scored was widely considered to be a fluke at the time.

After an experience like that, he was self-evidently not counting chickens as he made his way out of Old Trafford late on Tuesday night. “Slowly, yes,” he said to the notion that Old Trafford was becoming a place for visiting sides to fear again. “We have to continue like that, so when the teams come to Old Trafford it is difficult to beat us.”

Though there are some at United who would privately admit that this season is, at best, a race for second in the Premier League, Chelsea are not out of reach, Fellaini said. “We wait [for] a mistake, but we have to look for [ourselves]. We have to take it game by game and we will see after. After Boxing Day we have a lot of games. Southampton as well, they are better in the table than us and we’ll see after [we play them on] Monday as well.” Careful steps, but he at least dares look ahead now.

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