‘Paradise’ can wait: Louis van Gaal and Manchester United find fortune in Europe

Louis van Gaal may dream of paradise but, for half an hour, it seemed paradise would have to wait. Richard Jolly reports from Old Trafford.

Chris Smalling celebrates with Memphis Depay after scoring Manchester United's winning goal against Wolfsburg. Paul Ellis / AFP
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Louis van Gaal may dream of paradise but, for half an hour, it seemed paradise would have to wait. Manchester United were a goal down to Wolfsburg, staring at a second successive Uefa Champions League defeat, their worst ever start to this competition and, potentially, an early exit.

Then they pulled off a comeback victory, courtesy of goals from Juan Mata and Chris Smalling, that means Van Gaal’s sun-kissed retirement stands a greater chance of becoming a reality in 2017. The Dutchman wants to take United to a Champions League final in the 20 months before his current contract expires. If not, his career may go into extra-time, forcing him to delay his departure to the Portuguese holiday home he branded “paradise”.

If his ambitions remain difficult to achieve, United at least have two chances of achieving them, this year and next. Despite their opening-day loss against PSV Eindhoven, they still have every opportunity to progress from Group B. Even as United illustrated their habit of making life difficult for themselves, the Bundesliga runners-up were beaten by the Premier League leaders.

They had gone a goal down inside eight minutes when they hosted Club Brugge in their Champions League play-off. They trailed even sooner in their first home group game. Wolfsburg combined with slick, quick passing on their right flank, manoeuvring United centre-back Daley Blind out of position.

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Then forward Max Kruse supplied the slide-rule pass for Daniel Caligiuri to beat David de Gea. The fault lay largely with Antonio Valencia, who played the winger onside and whose evening was curtailed at half-time.

But United’s response to the deficit was emphatic. They dominated until they took the lead, attacking with the verve they have displayed since Anthony Martial’s signing, but all too rarely before it.

The Frenchman has been a transformative force, giving a previously ponderous side speed and urgency and a formerly subdued crowd excitement. The most expensive teenager in the history of football has brought the promise of goals to United and they threatened an equaliser long before it arrived.

Indeed, it should have come sooner. After one electric burst along the by-line, the Frenchman displayed the presence of mind to cut the ball back for the unmarked Wayne Rooney. It amounted to a sitter, but the captain skied his shot. It summed up his fortunes at the moment and it is notable how much sharper Martial looks compared to Rooney.

But, undaunted by his miss, United maintained their assault. Mata won a penalty, delivering a cross that struck Caligiuri’s hand, and converted it nonchalantly. He was almost as prominent as Martial, if at about half the speed, and the craftsman created the decider.

If the lanky Smalling looked ungainly as he slid in to apply the finishing touch, the build-up was a work of art. Mata, with a brilliant back-heeled volley over the Wolfsburg defence, supplied the advancing defender.

United still required De Gea to save well from Bas Dost and while Sir Alex Ferguson argued last week that the Spaniard could win them the title, he may also represent Van Gaal’s best hope of the Champions League triumph that would allow him to retire with his reputation sky high. Wolfsburg posed a threat with the spritely substitute Andre Schurrle angling a drive just wide and Ricardo Rodriguez coming similarly close with a late free kick.

Van Gaal was forced to send for substitute Phil Jones to bolster his defence but the Dutchman, who declared it was vital they won their three home games if they are to reach the last 16, saw them accomplish their first objective. His aims stretch far beyond that, though.