Juan Mata’s Manchester United career ended where it should have started. Mata, a No.10, lined up on the right-hand side on his United debut against Cardiff under David Moyes in January 2014 and it set the tone for the next eight years. Back in his rightful role behind the centre forward, Mata was magisterial against Brentford
The Spaniard’s farewell appearance to United’s season ticket holders – his first start in the league since the final day of last season – seemed charitable yet Mata had earned it through recent vibrant cameos. Occupying the playmaker role usually reserved for Bruno Fernandes, Mata enhanced United’s link-up play and the relocated Fernandes stealthily met Anthony Elanga’s spirited cross to make it 1-0.
Ralf Rangnick made his mind up about Marcus Rashford months ago and his relegation back to the bench at the expense of Mata, who turned 34 last week and is about to be released, was the final nail. Rashford has the pace Mata always lacked but not the footballing brain.
The only complaint United supporters may have is why Rangnick took so long to promote Mata to the starting XI. Though Brentford’s first league visit to Old Trafford since 1946 occasionally resembled an exhibition match, Thomas Frank’s side were intense and adventurous enough for any pedestrian players to wilt. Mata didn’t.
A scorer in the 2016 FA Cup final and starter in the triumphant League Cup and Europa League finals of 2017, Mata was already assured of a rousing send-off for his two goals at Anfield in 2015. In 70 minutes against Brentford, he confirmed he had been underused in his remaining years, reduced to a spotkick specialist in losing shootouts by Rangnick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It was a night for the old and the new. Recent debutant Alejandro Garnacho was serenaded by the Stretford End and Mata and Cristiano Ronaldo combined, only for the latter to be denied a goal by his offside toenail. Ronaldo earned a shot at his 24th of the season after the interval, winning the penalty he converted. Erik ten Hag has West Ham reject Sebastian Haller spearheading Ajax’s attack and should have no issue finding room for Ronaldo.
Some who had inked Ronaldo’s obituaries a matter of weeks ago have now ripped them up. Ronaldo. He was flexible off the ball and fluid on it, earning a celebratory ‘Siiiiu’ from the crowd for a sliding tackle in his own half, barging Scott McTominay to one side to execute it.
Provided Ronaldo is willing to grace Old Trafford for a second season, Ten Hag has a solution to an attack that is about to see an exodus. Ronaldo was in his element playing with fellow 30-something Mata and was more vexed than him when Mata sliced a shot wide. Ronaldo and Mata’s named were chanted during a swift lap of honour.
Nemanja Matic was removed in the 70th minute, Ronaldo and Scott McTominay going out of their way to clasp hands with the midfielder, who earned a double-high five from Rangnick. Mata soon departed and all four stands rose to their feet.
Fewer did so in the 73rd minute to walk out as part of the protesters’ plan for a mass exodus. One lad in front of the press box yelled at Harry Maguire, sat in the directors’ box, to ‘show some respect, apparently irked by his supposed lack of appreciation for Matic and Raphael Varane’s goal.
Even those who held a banner aloft calling for a walkout appeared to stay behind. Many sang the throwback ‘We’ll support you ever more’, arguably a counter-protest to the protest.
“Where’s your protest gone?” asked the Brentford fans. The final shrill was greeted with applause and ‘Glory glory Man United’, an anthem rarely heard this season, drowned out any dissenters.
Stewards lined up in front of the perimeter but the atmosphere was one of apathy, not animosity. The United matchgoers maintained standards by denying the returning Edinson Cavani an airing on a rare and final appearance in M16. Anyone who would have dared might have been turfed out, never mind walked out.
There were not enough substitutions for the farewells. Cavani and Jesse Lingard are going, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly want to go and so might Dean Henderson. Jones was among the introductions and that was a triumph in itself. A year ago, the chances of playing in front of a crowd again seemed remote and Jones has stayed fit to prolong his career away from Old Trafford. United fans have been more appreciative towards him this season than in previous campaigns.
Elanga made an impression in pre-season with a cushioned volley against Brentford and at the same end his precisely-timed run and prompt cross dictated Fernandes’s finish. Elanga’s direct wing play was all the more impressive as he ended up in the ditch by the advertising hoarding.
Very fantastic evening for Man United.