Injury, then ignominy: Midjtylland highlight confusion in Manchester United minds
Ignominy followed injury for Manchester United.
Midtjylland were only formed in 1999, the year United were European champions, but the Danish underdogs claimed a famous 2-1 victory on Thursday night when Louis van Gaal’s problems began before kick-off and mushroomed thereafter.
United lost David de Gea and they lost the game, in that order. The goalkeeper became the 13th name on the injured list when he was hurt in the warm-up. With Wayne Rooney ruled out for six weeks, they have been stripped of key men at either end of the pitch.
And yet, damningly, United could not attribute defeat to De Gea’s absence. His deputy, Sergio Romero, was arguably their outstanding player.
He made a hat-trick of fine saves – one, from Paul Onuachu, was superb – and his evening amounted to a damage-limitation exercise.
As he restricted the deficit to 2-1, United should still progress to the last 16 of the Europa League. But as nothing comes easily to them, Midtjylland ought to travel to Manchester with confidence.
The two goals they scored showed their strengths and United’s weaknesses, in defending and character.
The Danish champions have pace and menace in attack. After Memphis Depay, who owed his place in the starting 11 to Rooney’s knee problem, opened the scoring, the excellent Pione Sisto levelled, with a storming solo run followed by a shot that took a telling deflection after Michael Carrick had given the ball away.
Then the Nigerian Onuachu, fresh from being denied by Romero, exacted his revenge with a low drive that followed an apology of a tackle from Juan Mata.
His winner was the reward Midtjylland deserved. United had looked the more refined team in the first half. Their hosts were more determined and energetic after the break.
With better finishing, they would have led. Depay struck at the end of a 56-second spell when United could have found themselves behind and instead led. It began with dreadful defending as United were caught on the counter-attack, with one ball enough to send the Midtjylland debutant Vaclav Kadlec sprinting clear from his own half.
The Czech’s eventual shot was tame and blocked by Romero. United went on the offensive again, Jesse Lingard crossed and, with three defenders distracted by Anthony Martial at the near post, it reached Depay.
He scrambled a shot over the line at the second attempt for his first goal in three months.
At which point, with Martial speedy and incisive, United looked the classier side.
Lingard almost restored their lead, clipping the bar with a volley from Ander Herrera’s cross. But they had a callow look in defence, which was compounded by the lack of protection their central midfielders afforded them.
And Midtjylland’s tall team are set-piece specialists. United’s shorter side looked to outwit them at an early corner, Daley Blind feeding a low ball to Mata, who almost caught Mikkel Andersen out with a first-time shot.
Midtjylland almost scored in more conventional fashion, Kian Hansen leaping high above Blind to direct a downward header that Romero did well to repel.
The opening half hour was defined by corners. United’s chances stemmed from them, too, even if Chris Smalling did not recognise the size of the opportunity he was afforded when unmarked at the back post and, rather than going for goal himself, he attempted to head the ball into a teammate’s path.
It highlighted the confusion in United minds. And whereas it seemed that Midtjylland would only threaten from dead-ball situations, Sisto and Onuachu illustrated they are more than just a one-dimensional side.
It was the greatest result in their history, but yet another depressing one in an increasingly dismal season for United.
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Published: February 19, 2016 04:00 AM