A comeback too far for Manchester United after Champions League dreams end abruptly at Leipzig

Solskjaer's side could not maintain their useful habit of getting a result when they really needed one in Germany on Tuesday

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Manchester United captain Harry Maguire and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talked a good game ahead of flying to Leipzig for Tuesday’s key Champions League game.

The Europa League was dismissed and Maguire talked of their habit of getting a result when they really needed one, his example being holding their nerve and defeating his former club Leicester City to finish third in the Premier League last season and qualify for the Champions League.

Solskjaer and his players talk of the importance of starting well, yet their actions fail to match the words and United keep doing the opposite: his team have led at half time in only six of their 18 games so far this season.

The first half goal difference is actually negative: 14-16. The second half goal difference swings wildly in United’s favour to 26-11. So was there any surprise when United went into half time behind against RB and then played much stronger in the second half in Germany?

England’s biggest club had done exactly the same at West Ham only three days previously, but escaped because the difference was only a goal and Solskjaer could bring Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford off the bench. Both performed vital rescue roles, but there’s a worrying consistency to the inconsistency because it keeps happening.

United were a goal down against PSG last week. As with West Ham, they started playing after half time. Trailing by two at Southampton in the game before Paris, another world-class substitute Edinson Cavani was brought on and led a comeback.

United can come back against decent Premier League teams like Everton, Southampton or West Ham, they can even do it away from home and have won their last nine away league games, but not against some of the best teams in the world in the Champions League, especially with a couple of players missing.

The side who play Manchester City at the weekend would have a better chance if they stop handicapping themselves by conceding early goals.

On Tuesday, an unprepared United were 2-0 down in Germany after 13 minutes and, once again, started performing after the break and a tactical change since the three at the back which had worked so well in Paris was exploited by the fleet-heeled Germans and their on-loan Manchester City player Angelino.

Two became three and you don’t come back from 0-3 in a Champions League game with less than a third of the match to play. The crazy thing with this United team is that they nearly did and the game finished 2-3. Just as against PSG, United had chances. Fernandes, by a distance the club’s best player, hit the cross bar with a free kick. Mason Greenwood looked the liveliest.


Player ratings: West Ham 1 Manchester United 3


But United still went out. It's not unfair to judge Solskjaer's team across six Champions League games and they failed to get out of a tough group. And it is a failure amid the progress he is making of the team taking more Premier League points than any other bar Liverpool since January, one especially disappointing since United won their opening two games against Champions League finalists PSG away and then put five past semi-final RB Leipzig at home.

The defeat in Istanbul – again when the team went behind before they started playing – cost the team a place in the knock out stages.

Elimination to the Europa League stings at a club built for Champions League football and he responsibility isn’t just on the players for these slipping starts. The manager also must stop this otherwise he will lose too much support among fans – although he’ll still find he has it when they’re back inside stadiums, hopefully this month.

Champions League elimination to Wolfsburg in December 2015 was the beginning of the end for Louis van Gaal as United manager, just as defeat to Sevilla was in 2018 for Jose Mourinho. And defeat under David Moyes to Olympiakos in 2014 was a major low point, though United won through in the second leg.

United maintain they have a long-term plan to build the right squad with the right culture, Solskjaer needs a trophy or tangible evidence of progress.

The Norwegian had a habit of getting a result when he really needed one. But not in Leipzig, when his team needed to avoid defeat but lost their most important game of the season so far.