Manchester United welcomed back their supporters with one of the goals of the season – but then dropped into the sort of performance that is becoming much too frequent, to drop two points to relegated Fulham in their last Old Trafford game of the campaign.
So much was made, during the speculation of Edinson Cavani’s possible decision to leave before signing a new contract, about how much of a shame it would be if he didn’t get to experience a crowd at Old Trafford, and vice versa.
Both parties seemed keen to make an impression, with supporters graciously receiving the striker and Cavani for his part putting himself around. He could have won a penalty in the 13th minute but just two minutes later made a more indelible impression; De Gea hit a long pass, and Cavani found himself with space between the defenders. Perhaps conceding his veteran legs might not have the pace to stay in front of the retreating defenders, he improvised, hitting a gorgeous lofted effort from 40 yards – it was perfectly precise, flying into the roof of the net.
Incidentally, the goal was from almost the exact same position as the last one Old Trafford supporters were in the stadium to witness, when Scott McTominay scored against Manchester City last year.
Replays showed a certain amount of luck – Bruno Fernandes had apparently been adjudged to have played the ball, at which point Cavani was onside, but subsequent angles suggested that had not been the case – and, from De Gea’s kick, Cavani had been a few yards offside.
It was a magnificent goal but the first half did not live up to it – this may well be an audition for a Europa League final place but it didn’t seem as though too many were interested in putting a convincing case for their own inclusion. Perhaps that’s because most feel effectively guaranteed of a place – such as Victor Lindelof, who was embarrassed by the turn of teenager Fabio Carvalho, and saved only by the young forward’s rash decision to hit a tame shot from long range instead of accepting the free run on goal the United defender had presented him.
Tuanzebe then slipped early in the second half, also unpunished, before Fernandes – who himself has only had a few games in front of fans at United – went close with a free-kick.
At 1-0, United’s lead was never convincing – moments after Greenwood had a chance to make it two, the side who were already relegated snatched an equaliser, when Joe Bryan strolled in unchallenged between Wan-Bissaka and Lindelof to head in. It was a bad goal to concede – aren’t they all – but the right-back could be doubly criticised as it was he who kept Fulham onside in the build-up.
The stage was set for supporters to see a grand finale; only one problem – this United team are lethargically limping towards the finish line yet again, and their quality in the injury time minutes was just as poor as it had been for most of the preceding ninety.
The last home game of a season usually brings with it a number of questions and this was no different, although maybe for slightly different reasons than usual.
If there’s nothing riding on the game – and this game just about fell into that category – then you can wonder if some players are close to a departure.
Was this David De Gea’s stage for an Old Trafford farewell in front of returning fans after a decade at the club, or was it a genuine choice by Ole Gunnar to reconsider his decision on the goalkeeping situation considering the poor recent form of the defence without Maguire? Either way – De Gea is much too good to be considered a goalkeeper ready to put out to pasture, and that makes whatever happens from this point a big decision from the manager.
Likewise the selection of Tuanzebe in the middle of defence. The youngster had a great game in Paris in the group stages of the Champions League but could be said to have been hung out to dry for a collective nightmare in Turkey. Since then he has been in the wilderness but was given a run out today because, simply put, Bailly and Lindelof together has been a recipe for disaster just as it often was prior to Maguire.
These were the biggest questions from the selection, and they are introspective ones – no matter how well they were going to do, the answers are presumably short term, with the lack of trust over the recalled players surely an indication that United will be looking to strengthen. At least in defence.
United were not as shambolic as they were in defence against Liverpool but without Maguire, Lindelof looks all at sea and one can see the knock-on effect that has on Wan-Bissaka. It’s a concern.
This was another of those games where both long-term and short-term prospects look ropey. United look as though they’re stumbling to second place (which could be confirmed later on today) but this is a second place like 1988 or 2018, a finish which should not fool anyone about the measure of work that is still needed to be a genuine contender to win the league. The more pressing issue is the worryingly disjointed and casual way United have begun to sleepwalk through the final stages of the campaign, which as we saw in 2018 is no way to prepare for a cup final.
De Gea 6
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— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) May 18, 2021