Pogba has long been hailed as a future captain by his manager Jose Mourinho but it was nevertheless a surprise to see him given the armband for the first time ahead for Manchester United’s first home Champions League tie since 2015 – and what should have been a big night ended disappointingly for the French midfielder.
The 24-year-old went down clutching the back of his leg after only 18 minutes and immediately signalled to the bench that he was unable to continue. It means United must now wait for medical tests to ascertain the extent of what could potentially be a serious hamstring injury – a major concern given the schedule which faces Jose Mourinho’s side who face Wayne Rooney’s Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday and a further five fixtures in the next month, culminating in a trip to Anfield in October.
The silver lining, however, was that Pogba’s replacement Marouane Fellaini – a man who Mourinho praised in the build-up and whom he refused to sell in the transfer window – not only scored the opening goal was also man of the match as United, without ever hitting the heights, cruised to a victory which gets them off to the perfect start in Group A – with CSKA Moscow next to navigate in Russia on September 27.
Romelu Lukaku, with his sixth goal in six matches following a big money move from Everton, was also on target as was substitute Marcus Rashford, also continuing his excellent start to the campaign even though United never reached the dizzy heights of some of their recent Premier League performances.
Where the Champions League lies in United’s list of priorities this season is an interesting one given the steady pace of their revival under Mourinho. The Special One’s relationship with the competition - and with Uefa - has been a tempestuous, incendiary, love-hate affair. Yes he has won it twice, with Porto and Inter, but there have also been countless angry rants at officials, touchline bans, fines, accusations of a referees conspiracy in favour of Barcelona and even – legend has it - a ride in a laundry basket in a bid to get round a ban on giving his pre-match team talk whilst at Chelsea.
But after almost two years away from the limelight the Special One was donning a halo ahead of this group stage tie. He had already down-played his team’s chances of lifting the trophy, saying United are currently some way behind the big guns of PSG, Real, Juve, Barcelona and Bayern, and took a very un-Mourinho stance as he analysed the job ahead.
“This football club will always be a giant but our job right now is to bring it back to that stature,” he said in his programme notes. “We will take that process step by step and be humble.” The United manager also went on to describe how his team would respect every group stage opponent, take every game one by one and remain grounded about their ambitions. Then, once in the 16, he added ‘anything can happen.’ Who knows how long the new calmer, less attritional approach will last – history at Chelsea and Real Madrid tells you Mourinho’s demons are never that far below the surface – but it worked in United’s favour against a disappointing Basel side who showed little sign of giving the Premier League side any real problems at Old Trafford.
Mourinho opted to entirely change his defence, bringing in new signing Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling in the centre with Ashley Young and Danny Blind at full-back; but the gamble was never a big one and this was ultimately a simple night’s work in a match in which the final result was never really in doubt.
Certainly there was no sense that United didn’t belong on this stage, where they have always dominated in the past. Returning to the Champions League after a brief visit to Europa land was, as Mourinho put it, ‘back to normality’ and as such there was no need for undue fanfare and no need for any unnecessary energy expended.
Perhaps that is why the atmosphere inside Old Trafford was a little underwhelming too for much of the night. Yes, the Stretford End was glad to hear the Champions League anthem again but this was not a time for parting or hyperbole, it was simply ‘back to work and get your heads down’ to get through the group.
It would be a major surprise if United don’t do exactly that. Without even hitting top gear they navigated this match well enough, going ahead after 35 minutes when Young crossed exquisitely from the right and substitute Fellaini powered home a header which underlined his manager’s faith in him. It was 2-0 shortly after the break, this time a corner to the far post where Lukaku rose to plant a simple but effective header high into the net – and 3-0 when Rashford swept home with a flourish after the ball fell to him 16m out.
De Gea 7; Young 7, Lindelhof 6, Smalling 6, Blind 6; Pogba 5 (Fellaini 19; 8), Matic 7; Mata 6 (Rashford 77; 7), Mkhitaryan 7, Martial 6 (Lingard 69; 6); Lukaku 7. Subs not used: Romero, Lingard, Carrick, Valencia, Darmian.
Vacilik 7; Balanta 6, Sucy 6, Akanji 6; Lang 5, Xhaka 5, Zuffi 6, Riveros 6 (Oberlin 77; 6); Steffen 6, van Wolfswinkel 5 (Bua 66; 6) Elyounoussi 7. Subs not used: Salvi, Gaber, Fransson, Schmid, Calla.