Neil Humphreys: Bruno belongs in Europe
Fernandes can lead Man United back to Champions League
Manchester United will return to their old European haunts as long as their new boy maintains his majestic form.
Whether the Red Devils actually belong in the Champions League is a debate for another day, but Bruno Fernandes certainly does.
In the first half against Watford last night, he looked like a peach among plums. By the second half, he was a master of his midfield universe.
|(Bruno Fernandes 42-pen, Anthony Martial 58, Mason Greenwood 75)|
He owned Old Trafford and the crowd adopted him as one of their own. Chants of "Bruno" drifted across the stadium as supporters recognised familiar traits.
To paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson, this boy looks like a Manchester United player.
He scored his first goal for the club - a penalty he both won and converted - and added a smart assist in a 3-0 victory that he increasingly dominated.
United's performance was not a vintage one. Their opposition were dreadful and Fernandes served another purpose. Rather than fill a gap, the Portuguese craftsman emphasised the gap between himself and those around him.
Despite facing opposition in the bottom three, United initially laboured to build momentum on the back of their win at Chelsea last week.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues to persevere with a formation and a philosophy that is either idealistic or naive, depending on one's view of the affable manager.
His loose 4-2-3-1 encouraged United to play from the back and feed either Daniel James on the left or Mason Greenwood on the other side.
Both drifted out of the game for long periods, thanks to an underlying sluggishness to their side's play.
Before the game, Solskjaer demanded more long balls, presumably to compensate for the exasperating midfield dithering.
Not only did Fred and Nemanja Matic not turn defence into attack quickly enough, they didn't retreat in a hurry either.
Watford's rudimentary approach essentially conceded possession to United as they waited to pounce on the counter. Their target was usually Fred.
The space between Fred and United's back four invited the relegation-threatened side to score. But they are a relegation-threatened side for a reason and squandered their opportunities.
Troy Deeney bundled the ball home in the 52nd minute, but his finish was correctly disallowed for an earlier handball.
By then, Fernandes had already succeeded where others had failed. He had learnt to mind the gaps.
He covered the space between central midfield and James, probing Watford's weak spot before earning his reward in the 42nd minute.
Running onto James' threaded pass, United's newcomer showed club qualities of old: Speed, power and tenacity.
ECHOES OF CANTONA
Jaap Stam has compared Fernandes to Paul Scholes and the midfielder certainly demonstrated Scholes-like control and improvisation to earn his penalty. But the hop, skip and a jump spot-kick had cocky echoes of Eric Cantona.
As he grew into the contest, carving out passes to both flanks and launching attacks for fun, the 25-year-old took charge. He looks right at home.
The same can't be said for all of his colleagues, although Anthony Martial managed to cement his status as enigma-in-chief.
Largely anonymous, the Frenchman chipped exquisitely over Ben Foster, from a tight angle, after the goalkeeper had repelled his first effort.
The goal came after a glorious exhibition of one-touch passing, offering a tantalising glimpse of what United could become.
Their future remains uncertain, but Fernandes must be at the epicentre.
As he found his baton, United's orchestra found the right key. In the 75th minute, he slipped a pass to the galloping Greenwood, who thumped his effort into the top corner.
A goal, an assist and a promise of much more to come, Fernandes will find a path back to the Champions League. It'll be up to his teammates to keep up.