Omonia Nicosia 2 Manchester United 3
Erik ten Hag applied a desperately required change to save Manchester United from a second humiliation in four days. Losing at the interval, the Dutchman brought on Marcus Rashford then and Anthony Martial a little later and they scored the goals that turned embarrassing defeat into Group E victory in Nicosia.
Nothing, though, can hide the faultlines in Ten Hag’s team which are hardly news: no discernible possession-based attack patterns and a defence that is amateurish as illustrated by Karim Ansarifard’s breakaway opener.
For a while – from the 33rd to 53rd minutes and Rashford’s equaliser – Neil Lennon’s men could dream of handing Ten Hag the type of seismic loss suffered by three of his four post Alex Ferguson predecessors.
Omonia, who had won only once in their last 26 European games before tonight, threatened to emulate Olympiakos, in 2014, who beat David Moyes’s United 2-0; MK Dons (2015) – 4-0 over Louis van Gaal’s side – and Istanbul Basaksehir, 2-1 against Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team, two years ago.
In Bruno Felipe’s 40-yard free run at David De Gea’s goal that set up Ansarifard – after Tyrell Malacia ceded possession from a Jadon Sancho pass following Christian Eriksen’s free-kick – was an unwanted echo of how Demba Ba did similarly when scoring for Basaksehir following a United corner in November 2020.
Yet despite Omonia giving United a further scare at the end when making it 3-2, United escaped following Sunday’s 6-3 trouncing at Manchester City without a further confidence-draining result. Here, unlike at the Etihad Stadium, they showed courage, though against this level of opposition it should never have been as close as it was.
Until falling behind United hogged possession. One sequence had Casemiro, Eriksen, Bruno Fernandes and Lisandro Martínez rolling the ball around the opponent before Cristiano Ronaldo, preferred ahead of Rashford, swivelled and had his shot blocked.
Another free-flowing United move featured Fernandes chipping Fabiano but not the bar before Ronaldo’s high-boot from the rebound saved Nicosia as João Pinheiro blew for a foul.
United had never faced a Cypriot team before in competition, though had experienced this venue, having lost at the GSP Stadium 3-0 to Maccabi Haifa 20 years ago in a dead Champions League group game, the Israelis using the venue then for security reasons.
Ronaldo, on 699 club goals, aimed for a 700th with a 20-yard free-kick but this went sailing over. Antony’s radar was more accurate when he dipped a shoulder, swept from the right wing on to his left foot, and hit a slicing effort Fabiano flung fingertips at.
But now came Omonia’s moment via the rapid break of Bruno whose run was as cool as the pass to Ansarifard: the Iranian, once of Nottingham Forest, skipped sideways and rifled home and delirium broke out in the stadium apart from the pocket of travelling support who sat stunned.
For the remaining 12 minutes of the period United were a side haunted. Ten Hag had seen enough of Sancho and Malacia, replacing them with Rashford and Luke Shaw at the break. United’s response at the second half’s start had them moving the ball around but when it fell to Eriksen in their area the Dane was unable to keep control. Fernandes, too, could only weakly steer a free-kick into Fabiano’s hands.
Rashford regained composure in the calmest moment for United yet. Initially clumsy when talking Fernandes’s pass, no pressure was applied on the No 10 so he could settle and curl the equaliser beyond Fabiano from range.
This punctured the Cypriots but could United go on and prevail? Ten Hag next switched Fernandes for Martial and this proved another good change. With virtually a first touch the Frenchman swerved inside from the left and beat Fabiano at the near post.
After Ronaldo hit a post, Rashford scored his second, and United should have killed the game. Instead, an unmarked Nikolas Panagiotou made it 3-2 in the closing minutes — squeaky posterior time for the visitors.
But, United clung on. – Guardian