Manchester United crash out of Champions League in Germany
Louis van Gaal’s team came up short at Wolfsburg
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and assistant manager Ryan Giggs look on, dejected. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
Wolfsburg 3 Manchester United 2
For Manchester United it was a sobering night, and a bleak reminder about how far they are away from rejoining the elite teams of Europe. They are out of the Champions League, paying the ultimate price for a night of chaotic and sometimes absurd defending, and for a club of their size and ambitions it will be a dreary existence switching to the Thursday night and Sunday afternoon routine that the Europa League entails.
Louis van Gaal cannot even complain they were put in a particularly difficult group and it was startling to see the way his team lost their way after taking the lead through Anthony Martial and later in the match when Josuha Guilavogui’s own goal briefly threatened to get United out of a hole of their own making. No team can expect to defend this generously and get away with it. Their early lead lasted only four minutes and United’s hopes were effectively extinguished when Naldo, Wolfsburg’s Brazilian centre-half, scored his second of the night two minutes after the visitors’ equaliser had made it 2-2.
It was a breathless night but, ultimately, United were ragged in the extreme. Their failures were of a different variety to the ones that have been seen in the Premier League and with PSV Eindhoven beating CSKA Moscow 2-1 in the other Group B match, there have to be serious questions about United’s inadequacies in the stadium where they begin matches by playing the noise of a pack of howling wolves.
At the Nordkurve the most boisterous Wolfsburg supporters, behind their banners for Commando Ultra and Weekend Brothers, made a din of their own. There are not many clubs in Europe with a more formidable home record and if nothing else, at least on this occasion United could not be accused of blandness. The game was surprisingly open and perhaps it was inevitable Van Gaal’s team might be vulnerable in defence given that they had Guillermo Varela playing at right-back and, later, an 18-year-old, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, on the left. Varela, a 22-year-old Uruguayan, was the first signing of the David Moyes era and it was a difficult night for him to make his first start.
He was not alone, however, in those moments when United’s defence invited danger and having taken the lead, it must have galled Van Gaal that they let it slip so quickly. Naldo hooked his volley past David de Gea with great expertise from Ricardo Rodríguez’s free-kick but United’s marking was questionable and that completely changed the complexion of the evening just at the point when the visiting team should have been trying to take the sting out of the occasion.
Van Gaal will no doubt find fault with Wolfsburg’s second goal as well and it was certainly true that in the build-up Bastian Schweinsteiger’s lack of mobility was shown up by Julian Draxler’s swerving run inside from the right.
Yet perhaps this one should just be remembered as a wonderful team goal. Twice, the play was switched, from right to left and then back again. Draxler eluded Schweinsteiger, kept running and then played a perfect one-two with Max Kruse to run behind United’s static defence. The temptation to shoot must have been overwhelming but Veirinha was coming up on his inside and, with De Gea advancing, Draxler’s pass inside was the better option, leaving his team-mate with an open goal.
It was rare to see United, with the Premier League’s outstanding defensive figures, opened up so regularly, but it had been that way since the opening few minutes when Varela went missing and Andre Schürrle ought to have put Wolfsburg ahead from their first attack. Draxler had a fine chance before half-time to make it 3-1, aiming his shot too close to De Gea, and when Matteo Darmian went off injured Borthwick-Jackson’s introduction gave United’s back four a level of inexperience that clearly left them susceptible to more damage.
On a more encouraging note, United were attacking with menace and Martial had the beating of his opponents. Juan Mata’s through ball was perfectly weighted for the opening goal and Martial sized up the opportunity, then slotted his shot past Diego Benaglio with a coolness that suggested his dry run had not unduly affected him.
At 1-1, Marouane Fellaini came close to re-establishing United’s lead from a corner and there were considerable protests on the touchline after a goal was disallowed just before half-time. Jesse Lingard’s cross had gone straight in but Mata was offside as he tried to apply the finishing touch and, though it took an age for the assistant referee to raise his flag, it was the correct decision given the Spaniard’s position in front of Wolfsburg’s goalkeeper.
Wolfsburg started the second half with a dash more conservatism and, among a flurry of chances, Benaglio kept out Memphis Depay’s flying volley with a splendid save. Yet United were alarmingly out of sorts in defence and it needed some outstanding goalkeeping from De Gea to keep them alive. It was difficult to choose between his back-tracking save to keep out Schürrle’s chip, having initially run outside his penalty area, or the reflex action to spare Lingard an own goal.
United’s second goal came from a corner on the left and Fellaini heading the ball into the turf, with Guilavogui inadvertently flicking it over his own goalkeeper, and at that stage PSV were also drawing. Naldo’s header changed everything and the next update from Eindhoven confirmed their impending exit.