Manchester United 4 Istanbul Basaksehir 1
The definitive history of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era as Manchester United manager is still to be written but, whatever the future holds, there seems to be one special legacy guaranteed from the Norwegian’s reign in charge.
Bruno Fernandes, the Portuguese playmaker signed from Sporting Lisbon for £47m in January, continued his remarkable impact on his inconsistent team, despite all the challenges that 2020 has thrown his way on and off the field.
The Covid pandemic could have disrupted his integration into Solskjaer’s line-up and the English game but, as he scored two first-half goals and selflessly donated a potential hat-trick penalty kick to team-mate Marcus Rashford against Basaksehir, Fernandes continued to grow — and glow — in his role as the key figure in the United squad.
Nothing seems to have fazed the 26-year-old in his 10 months in England. Not the weight of his transfer fee or the inconsistency that has plagued his team for long spells or, even, the uncertainty that has sporadically surfaced about Solskjaer’s future.
His manager has attempted to throw forward a variety of excuses for his players’ inconsistency in recent weeks, from an unfair fixture schedule to the absence of supporters.
But Fernandes has needed no such mitigation, his form consistent and high-quality and, Tuesday night, as United sought a victory to make amends for the embarrassing defeat in the corresponding fixture in Istanbul three weeks ago, he was again the pivotal figure in an important win.
After just seven minutes a United left-wing corner was headed out by Alexandru Epureanu to the edge of the area where an unmarked Fernandes connected with a stunning, first-time half-volley that soared into the roof of the net.
There were few other players in the United line-up who could have pulled off quite such an exquisite finish although Fernandes’s second, after 19 minutes, came from the other end of the technical merit scale.
It owed more to visiting goalkeeper Mert Gunok who made a pathetic attempt to deal with an Alex Telles cross, under pressure from Edinson Cavani. His flap touched the ball straight to an unmarked Fernandes who rolled the ball into an open goal from six yards.
By the time Marcus Rashford chased a long ball into the Basaksehir area, only to be brought down by Boli Bolingoli on 33 minutes, penalty taker Fernandes had the opportunity to claim his hat-trick.
Cavani, making his full United debut and starting a game for the first time since he left PSG in March, wanted the ball; Anthony Martial too.
But, after a VAR check to ensure Rashford had been on-side, designated taker Fernandes handed the ball to the young centre-forward and, following a cheeky stutter step, the England man calmly converted.
It was the sort of gesture that is worth more in a dressing room than a goal - even a hat-trick goal - and the sort of simple act that shows maturity, leadership, and selflessness.
But Solskjaer did not need to see Fernandes score a penalty to appreciate his value. The forward has now played 35 games for the United manager and been directly involved in 34 goals - 13 assists and 21 goals for himself.
More importantly, given the difficulties his side has faced this season, Fernandes now has nine goals from 13 games in this stuttering campaign.
Yet, it could be argued, all this we already knew. The minor revelations from Tuesday night’s victory, a result that edged United closer qualification for the knock-out stages, surrounded two summer signings, Donny van de Beek and Cavani.
The former looked extremely impressive, both with and without the ball, alongside Fred in front of his back four while Cavani offered the skillset of a high-quality traditional number nine, adding a subtly different nuance to United’s attacking play.
That should have led to even more goals - Rashford was denied by an early Guno save then had an effort ruled out for offside from a Fernandes assist while Cavani missed a good opening soon after the restart.
Still, in the negative column, some of the defensive frailties that have undone United this season, were exposed too often.
Former Premier League striker Demba Ba wasted two glorious chances that were gifted him and the dangerous Edin Visca constantly threatened, forcing David de Gea into one brilliant second-half save at the foot of his post.
Deniz Turuc finally beat de Gea after 75 minutes with a breathtaking 25-yard free-kick which the keeper could not prevent from crossing the line as he clawed it away and Visca struck the bar five minutes later as United’s defence stuttered towards the finishing line.
By that stage, Solskjaer has rested some key personnel — Fernandes among them, naturally — and the unconvincing final minutes were finally forgotten in injury-time when two of the subs combined for a fourth on the counter-attack, Mason Greenwood squaring for Dan James to score.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6 (Williams 59, 6), Lindelof 6 (Tuanzebe 45, 6), Maguire 5, Telles 6; Fred 6, van de Beek 8; Martial 6 (Matic 82), Fernandes 9 (Greenwood 59, 6), Rashford 7 (James 59, 6); Cavani 7.
BASAKSEHIR (4-1-4-1): Gunok 4; Rafael 6, Skrtel 7 (Ponck 86), Epureanu 6, Bollingoli 5 (Ali Kaldirim 73, 6); Ozcan 6 (Giuliano 73, 6); Visca 8, Turuc 7, Kahveci 5 (Tekdemir 45, 6), Chadli 6 (Gulbrandsen 61, 6); Ba 5.
Referee: O Hategan (Romania) 8