Manchester United were knocked out of the League Cup by Manchester City, with second half set piece goals from John Stones and Fernandinho the difference.
United thought they’d taken an early lead with less than two minutes played when Rashford’s shot was saved and the rebound went in off Stones; but Rashford had been offside earlier in the move.
Three minutes later, City did the same; Gundogan was just off from Foden’s cross when he put the ball in the United net.
Im the 9th minute Fernandes tested Steffen in the City goal but the keeper was equal to it. And then, in the 13th, De Bruyne had a shot from similar range for the visitors – his effort beat Henderson, but cracked against the post and away to safety.
Phil Foden had the ball in the net but he too was offside; still, and though there are many caveats to it, United’s start was much more promising than one of the nadirs of Solskjaer’s reign which was the first half of the Old Trafford semi-final against this opponent last season.
The rest of the first half was tight; City trying to catch United’s defensive concentration out, but they couldn’t, with Maguire particularly effective. However, that was more than could be said for the attackers – with Fernandes, Rashford and Martial all a split second away from displaying the sort of true conviction that could have tipped the odds in United’s favour.
Early in the second half there was more of that tit-for-tat – United had a free kick that was well dealt with. City had one that wasn’t; Stones got between Shaw and Maguire and the ball came off his thigh and went past Henderson.
As United attempted to figure out how to react, City looked to add a second. Foden was close to a cross and then Mahrez brought a sensational save from Henderson.
After Martial and Maguire failed to get proper connections on crosses, Fernandes had a shot from 30 yards in anger – the first to test the City keeper since that early effort.
With 15 minutes left Mason Greenwood was brought on for McTominay, with Martial’s stay of execution after a poor showing surely only due to United’s desperation for a goal.
When Wan-Bissaka failed to clear a corner with 8 minutes to go, Fernandinho hit a half-volley that could not have been more precise and flew into the corner.
United’s reaction was to clip a ball into the box towards Martial and the evening was summed up by the striker flicking the ball up and asking for a penalty, when the moment called for a top class forward with the right instinct to at least try and force the shot away. In a way the moment summed up one of the major issues at United, as when there is a struggle, too many players look to try and look for ways to get decisions they don’t deserve instead of taking the responsibility themselves.
United were not bad, or even poor, but there was a clear difference between the sides and there was no doubting who deserved to win.
It was a sobering evening for United amidst talk of a title challenge as the game demonstrated why City are still much more likely to put up a fight to Liverpool than United; but it could still serve as an experience United can learn from.
It’s clear that one midfielder to do the job of two that McTominay and Fred are doing would make a big difference. That a striker of genuine presence who has the ability that Martial’s potential has sadly failed to materialise into could elevate this team and take the burden off of Fernandes’ shoulders.
It’s clear that these areas of the team – and one could still say a centre-half with Eric Bailly’s unreliability taken into account, and a winger of genuine class – are big areas where United need to step up in order to not be beaten so comfortably in games like this. Solskjaer’s side can surprise – but when it counts, they too often resemble Arsene Wenger’s latter day Arsenal sides; nice to watch, but easy to play against as far as the truly top teams are concerned.
Defeats are never pleasant but great managers and teams are not defined by failures in this competition so as long as this is used as the educational experience it should be, a loss tonight might not be seen as damaging as others.
There remains an element of doubt that those above Solskjaer view the ambitions quite as critically as supporters. There remains an element of doubt that as ruthless as Solskjaer has been, he sees some of the big issues as issues – perhaps he wants to believe in the idea Martial will come good. That there is a leap of improvement that comes with games like this. These are traps Wenger fell into.
Solskjaer has now lost four semi-finals at United, three of them in domestic competitions to match Wilf McGuinness – whose reign was defined by those nights.
Defeats like this aren’t necessarily the terminal ones or the defining ones for this manager. But he is going to have to be ruthless once more in order for United, and him, to make the next step, or he will face the consequences of the failure that will come from misplaced faith, and in that case, losing all of these semi-finals will look like failures and not the stepping stones we all want to believe they are.
Van De Beek