Manchester United’s season looked to be over before it had even begun.
Back-to-back defeats before the end of August saw the vitriol return to Old Trafford, but fast forward just three weeks, after a third win on the bounce, away from home in Europe, a 3-0 victory inspired by the much-maligned Paul Pogba, and things are looking altogether more rosy.
The stage was set for more Jose Mourinho misery in the Swiss capital. Young Boys Bern, who have long been the butt of the joke in Swiss football having faltered at the last in several title campaigns, were determined to make it difficult for United, on their artificial pitch, embarking on their first European Cup/Champions League campaign in 32 years.
Step forward captain fantastic, as Pogba’s double saw United home, averted what looked like a disaster waiting to happen and perhaps, more importantly, signalled United’s fortunes could be about to change.
Tickets sold out in seven minutes for Young Boys’ Champions League debut according to one fan outside the Stade de Suisse – not bad considering the population of the Swiss capital is less than that of Middlesbrough – and confidence was high.
The United players looked relaxed pre-match, with Juan Mata firing balls at coaches in the dugout with much hilarity, but deep down, given United’s woeful recent record on the road in Europe, the players would have been feeling distinctly uneasy.
Prior to Wednesday’s encounter, in their last 14 games on the road in the Champions League, United had won just three, with two defeats in two against Swiss opposition – both Basel – in that time. Mourinho himself had lost two out of two in Switzerland.
Mourinho had even laid the foundations for another loss in the land of William Tell, bemoaning the artificial pitch before Wednesday’s encounter, insisting the home side had an immediate advantage on the unfamiliar surface. It’s what Mourinho does – avert all blame away from himself – only this time, he seemed to have gone early.
In the opening stages, that damaging defeat looked to be in the offing as Young Boys had several good chances to break the deadlock.
The pitch was causing United all kinds of problems, as predicted. The ground staff watered the pitch just before kick off to add that extra zip, and it really caught United off guard. It was a clever trick, as United had been training on the dry surface prior to the match, and were clearly unprepared for the added fizz on the ball.
Nonetheless, the gulf in class in the final third really told, and ultimately saw United home, with one man in particular head an shoulders above everyone else.
On days like this, Pogba really does look like that world beater he has always had the potential to become. It did not start all that well in the Stade de Suisse as, when allowed space to run at the Young Boys backline in the opening 20 minutes, Pogba looked distinctly laboured before being easily dispossessed.
United fans have seen plenty of this Pogba. After losing the ball, he trundled back towards his own goal to fulfil his defensive duties with a sulk all too prevalent in his game. The travelling United fans feared another night of frustration from their captain was on the horizon.
Then, out of the nothing, the other side of Pogba’s game reared its rather-more-attractive head. His finish for his first was pinpoint, curling the ball brilliantly into the net with his left foot, before he showed great resolve to step up to take the penalty for United’s second, having missed his last one at Burnley.
Yet, there is still some animosity from Mourinho towards Pogba, if Mourinho’s lukewarm praise after the match was anything to go by.
“If he [Pogba] starts arriving in possible scoring positions, that can be a plus for the team,” Mourinho said.
“The team had good stability in the midfield to allow him to go into these kind of positions. I am happy with the good, solid performance of the team, more than any individual.”
There is still work to be done, clearly.
Mourinho knows there is more to come from Pogba, but Pogba and United are not going to be fixed overnight, but after that third win on the road in a row, this was more like it from Pogba, and more like it from United.
Greater tests will come, but this United feels a world away from the chaotic, vulnerable mess that was dismantled by Tottenham less than a month ago and if, and it is a big if with such a enigmatic talent, Pogba can build on his two-goal salvo in Bern, then a successful season for both player and club might not be as unattainable as it seemed.