Mata helps determined Manchester United get back on track
Midfielder the key figure as Van Gaal’s side come from behind to defeat Wolfsburg
Chris Smalling stretches to steer home Manchester United’s winner against VfL Wolfsburg at Old Trafford. Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters I
GROUP B: MANCHESTER UNITED 2 (Mata 34pen, Smalling 53) VFL WOLFSBURG 1 (Caligiuri 4)
For a while, Manchester United briefly threatened to add their name to what had already been an undistinguished week for English teams in Europe’s premier club competition.
They were losing almost before they had the chance to work up a proper sweat and after the defeat to PSV on their first return to this competition, their fans could probably have been forgiven for wondering whether their shortcomings were about be exposed again.
Instead, it became a demonstration of how, slowly but surely, Louis van Gaal has brought back some of the old sturdiness and durability. Juan Mata’s penalty drew them level on a splendid night for the Spaniard that also saw him expertly set up the decisive goal for Chris Smalling. That came eight minutes into the second half and after that there was some spirited defending from the home team to make sure they did not surrender their position against determined and capable opponents.
Wolfsburg applied some concerted pressure during the final 20 minutes and Van Gaal must have been alarmed about the way his side were pinned back. Yet there was plenty to admire, too, about the team’s response to the early setback.
Luke Shaw’s broken leg means Antonio Valencia is currently getting a run in United’s right-back position, with Matteo Darmian taking over the vacancy at left-back. Yet the goal again exposed Valencia’s shortcomings in a back four. Though he has had plenty of practice now as a full-back, a natural defender would surely not have played Daniel Caligiuri onside in the manner that led to the goal.
It was a lovely, incisive move by Wolfsburg, originating with Caligiuri eluding Morgan Schneiderlin with a diagonal run, from left to right, through midfield. Once in the wing position, Caligiuri’s clever shift in direction took him between Schneiderlin and Darmian, both of whom were beaten too easily. Caligiuri turned the ball back to Julian Draxler but continued his own run and when the pass came back to him via Max Kruse, he was onside with the time and space to guide his shot beyond David de Gea.
There is, however, the sense now that when United go behind they are able to get it out of their system much quicker than at other times since Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Mata’s performance during the first half was of a player operating at the point of maximum expression. The Spaniard was a constant threat on the right of United’s attack, influencing the game in a manner which brought back memories of his best days at Chelsea.
Anthony Martial continues to look like an ideal wearer of United’s colours and the home side’s equaliser would have come earlier if Wayne Rooney, with a high and wasteful finish, had not made a hash of the chance the teenager stylishly created for him.
Mata was the most likely source for United to find a way back into the match and when he cut in from the right, after 34 minutes, two Wolfsburg players sough to close him down. Caligiuri jutted out his left arm as the cross came in. The ball came back off his hand and the referee, Viktor Kassai, pointed to the penalty spot. Mata’s steered the spot-kick expertly past Diego Benaglio.
Valencia, who missed Tuesday’s training session with a minor injury, was removed at half-time and it was a surprise that Van Gaal preferred to use the substitute, Ashley Young, in the same position rather than moving Darmian back to his usual role. Young did, however, have a part in United taking the lead. His cross was headed out before Schweinsteiger’s miskick spun in Mata’s direction and an improvisational flick hooked the ball over a defence that had started to move out. Smalling caught them out as he slid in to turn it past the oncoming Benaglio.
Schneiderlin was lucky not to have been shown a second yellow during the late spell of pressure, when De Gea had to save from Caligiuri, Rooney blocked a goalbound effort from Dante and substitute Andre Schurrle fired narrowly wide. United survived and with back-to-back games against CSKA Moscow to follow, their position in Group B suddenly looks much better.
MANCHESTER UTD: De Gea, Valencia (Young 46), Smalling, Blind, Darmian, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger (Jones 72), Mata, Rooney, Depay (Andreas Pereira 62), Martial. Subs not used: Romero, Wilson, Fellaini, McNair. Booked: Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Depay, Young.
VFL WOLFSBURG: Benaglio, Trasch (Jung 77), Naldo, Dante, Ricardo Rodriguez, Guilavogui, Arnold (Schurrle 69), Caligiuri, Kruse, Draxler, Dost (Bendtner 69). Subs not used: Grun, Schafer, Klose, Seguin. Booked: Caligiuri.
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).