Manchester United put in their most composed thirty minutes of the Champions League season so far just when it mattered – and Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho got the goals to secure qualification to the next stage of the competition, getting the post-Ole era off to a winning start.
Prior to kick-off Michael Carrick, the interim to the interim manager, spoke about a fresh start in the same tone as the messages we’ve seen posted from the players after each of the recent humiliations.
It’s clear to see why he said that – you want to try and build confidence from a low place. But it’s not a fresh start for anyone, least of all Martial, who was called in from the abyss to start for the first time since a laborious outing against Everton.
It does no favours to the players to pretend it is a fresh start. They can pretend it’s a blank page every week but those games are represented on league tables and measured in cup progress and their careers will be determined by them as a whole, not the ones they want to pick and choose better suit a highlight reel.
One of those big performances was needed tonight both by individuals and as a collective.
United were playing in a compact shape, careful of being torn apart like they have been early on in recent games – but the hosts had two decent chances in the first ten minutes, one testing De Gea and one being fired wide.
It quietened down, but United could never claim to be dominant even if they got into a semi-comfortable state with their cautious approach. The closest they got to scoring themselves was a Ronaldo header from a Telles cross – but the cross was from deep, and the header was from an awkward position, too awkward even for the legendary forward to cause real damage.
Any hope that things would get better in the second half quickly evaporated – and in the 58th minute, De Gea was at full stretch to make another save, this time to deny Trigueros. Danjuma then had a good opening – but shot just over.
Carrick responded by bringing on Fernandes and Rashford for the ineffectual Van De Beek and Martial. The best move of the play followed – Fernandes played in Sancho, who beat his man, but not the goalkeeper.
Suddenly United looked cool and in control of the game. The substitution seemed to have an elevating effect on all the players and the game turned in the favour of the visitors.
A magic moment arrived in the 78th minute – the hosts tried to play from the back. Fred pressed high, harassing an error from the defender – the ball bounced, and Ronaldo seized the opportunity, having an instinctive effort on goal. Of course he knows where it us – the shot was magnificently timed, and gave his team the lead once again.
In the last minute, it was two – Fred again nicked the ball, this time in his own half, and Ronaldo, Rashford and Fernandes flowed nicely on the counter to set up Sancho. He shot with power at the near post and the ball smashed in via the crossbar.
Supporters will be in their right minds to ask where this kind of display has been all season, particularly the second half – whilst never outstanding, it was nonetheless the toughest game of the group and it was dealt with in the most comfortable fashion.
Carrick made an eye-catching decision to drop Fernandes and select Van De Beek, which could easily be explained as the former Sporting man needing a break – though the interim manager would have known the kind of waves this decision would make and the kind of comments it would provoke about Solskjaer.
The truth is neither Van De Beek or Martial did anything to suggest they deserve a start but when Carrick made the subs it seemed a very clever ploy to change the pace of the game and it worked perfectly.
It was a positive and understated start to life in this new limbo, but United supporters couldn’t have asked for anything more. In fact, some quiet professionalism was just what the doctor ordered.
De Gea 8
Van De Beek 6
Cristiano Ronaldo goal
— Sang (@Panjelajah) November 23, 2021
— Man United Goals ❗️ (@ManUnitedGoals_) November 23, 2021