VALENCIA, SPAIN – Manchester United missed the chance to finish top of its Champions League group as an understrength team lost 2-1 at Valencia on Wednesday, with an embarrassing own goal by Phil Jones proving decisive.
With first-place Juventus losing 2-1 at Young Boys, United could have jumped above the Italian team in Group H with a win at Mestalla but manager Jose Mourinho’s decision to play a virtual reserve lineup backfired.
Valencia secured a place in the last 32 of the Europa League by finishing third in the group — and it was mainly thanks to Jones.
The center back slid in to clear the ball as he chased down Valencia striker Michy Batshuayi, but only succeeded in slotting it past Sergio Romero from 20 meters with the goalkeeper having come off his line.
That made it 2-0 for Valencia in the 47th minute, after Carlos Soler put the home side in front with a driven first-time finish after latching onto Jones’ clearing header in the 17th.
Substitute Marcus Rashford pulled a goal back in the 87th for United, which had sealed qualification for the knockout stage with a game to spare.
“I think that to qualify in this group is a success,” Mourinho said. “Never a failure. To finish second in this group is always a success.
“Before the game, I told the players that if we win tonight and Juventus win, we did our job. If we don’t win and Juventus doesn’t win, we can blame ourselves.”
Mourinho said he didn’t think the draw for the last 16 would be “significantly different” by finishing first or second.
However, United is now assured of playing either Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Porto or Paris Saint-Germain.
Paul Pogba, France’s World Cup-winning midfielder, has fallen out of favor with Mourinho and started on the bench for the last two Premier League games. He was recalled for the game against Valencia but didn’t improve his chances of retaining a place in the starting lineup for Sunday’s league game at Liverpool, United’s great rival.
Pogba missed a great chance when the score was 0-0, prodding the ball wide from inside the six-yard box following Marouane Fellaini’s header at a corner.
Pogba failed to shine once again, while Eric Bailly and Andreas Pereira also struggled to make an impact.
Asked if he had learned anything about his players, Mourinho said: “No, maybe you did. Not me. I didn’t learn anything from this game. Anything. Nothing that happened surprised me at all.”
It was a cutting response from Mourinho, who said Nemanja Matic and David De Gea were the only players rested for the trip to Spain.
Al Ain storms back to win
Host side Al Ain came back from three goals down to draw 3-3 with Team Wellington and then won 4-3 on penalties in a dramatic first-round match at the Club World Cup in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday.
Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Eisa saved two penalty kicks in the shootout to earn his team a second-round tie against African champion Esperance of Tunisia on Saturday.
Team Wellington, the Oceania champion, got off to a flying start when Mario Barcia scored with a dipping long-range shot in the 11th minute and Aaron Clapham finished off an incisive passing move for the second four minutes later.
Al Ain had a 36th-minute goal disallowed by VAR for a foul in the buildup and things went from bad to worse for Al Ain as Mario Ilich added a third for the semi-professionals in the 44th minute, tapping in unmarked at the post from a corner.
But the New Zealanders allowed the hosts to get a morale-boosting goal on the stroke of halftime, Tsukasa Shiotani slotting home after the defense had failed to clear.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic said that proved the turning point.
“It was really hard to come back, thank God we scored in the first half,” Mamic said. “That goal gave us some spirit and some chance to come back in the second half.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5