MANCHESTER, England (AP) There was only one place Marouane Fellaini was heading after scoring the goal that put Manchester United in a dominant position in the League Cup semifinals.
And it wasn’t to the United fans who have jeered him in recent weeks.
Instead, Fellaini zeroed in on the man who has shown faith in him during the tough times. Jose Mourinho was pumping his fists in the technical area when he was met with the full force of a charging Fellaini and his trademark afro.
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The United manager tumbled backward before putting his arms around the midfielder as they embraced. Minutes later, Fellaini’s name was being sung around Old Trafford.
“He changed the dynamic and the empathy with the fans,” Mourinho said.
Fellaini’s first goal of the season was important, not just because it sealed a 2-0 win for United against Hull on Tuesday in the first leg of the semifinals. The bear-hug celebration showed the togetherness and improving bond between Mourinho and his players, a factor that cannot have helped but aid United during its current run of nine straight victories in all competitions.
You have to go back nearly four years – before United’s miserable years under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal – to a similar display of emotion, when Robin Van Persie ran along the touchline and embraced Alex Ferguson after scoring a match-clinching penalty against Stoke in April 2013 as United closed in on the Premier League title.
There was more of a personal element to Fellaini’s reaction.
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A month ago, the Belgium international was booed by sections of Old Trafford – not for the first time – as he warmed up as a substitute late in the second half of United’s win over Tottenham. That was chiefly because a week earlier, he had come on as a late sub against Everton and conceded a penalty that was scored to deny United victory.
Yet there’s also the feeling that United fans just haven’t warmed to a player who is associated, rightly or wrongly, with the most difficult period in the club’s recent history.
Fellaini was one of Moyes’ first signings in the immediate post-Ferguson era and has never appeared a natural fit for United, whose success since the early 1990s was based on fluid, attacking and entertaining football. Getting the best out of Fellaini – a tall midfielder with a strong aerial presence – requires a more direct and pragmatic style, which is why he thrived at former club Everton.
He was nevertheless valued highly by Moyes and Van Gaal, and was therefore a regular starter under them. Under Mourinho, Fellaini has had less game time, especially since November when United has generally gone with a midfield of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba.
Fellaini is now regarded as a Plan B, a player to throw on in the final minutes to cause damage with his height and physicality. His crucial goal against Hull came via that route, with Matteo Darmian floating over a left-wing cross that Fellaini met with a looping header over the goalkeeper.
“I’m here to support the players, especially the players in a difficult situation,” Mourinho said of Fellaini. “But he has a very strong mentality, he coped well with the situation, he was not afraid the next match after Everton to go to the pitch again.
“He is always supported by myself,” Mourinho added. “He knows he is a very important player for me.”
Mourinho likes to have physically imposing players in his team. He had them at Chelsea and immediately after joining United, he signed Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly – all players with a presence.
Given Fellaini’s characteristics, the midfielder could have a vital role to play for United in the second half of the season.