Club Bruges 1 Manchester United 1
Manchester United stuttered throughout this tepid affair yet still remain favourites to reach the last 16 of the Europa League when facing Club Bruges at Old Trafford in next week’s return leg.
Towards the end here snow fell, replacing the rain, on a night when each side was frozen in a deep below-par state. And while Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side have the away goal, whether they possess the talent and skill to win this competition for a second time in three years is doubtful.
Solskjær made six changes for this second of three games in seven days – Chelsea having been beaten on Monday, with Watford next up at Old Trafford on Sunday. Mason Greenwood's illness prevented him starting, the manager said, so Anthony Martial led a 3-4-2-1 featuring Jesse Lingard, who hoped to complete 90 minutes for the fourth time this term on his 200th United appearance.
Philip Clement's side had the former Liverpool No 1 Simon Mignolet behind a 4-3-3 as Club Bruges entered as the Jupiler Pro League leaders by nine points.
The victory at Chelsea was the perfect way to commence the closing phase of the campaign following United’s winter break. The question, though, remained the same: might the win finally initiate a formidable run of form that has been elusive since the beginning of Solskjær’s tenure.
They started well but that would prove a false augury in a half in which United were dismal until the last 10 minutes. From kick-off Nemanja Matic hit Diogo Dalot with a diagonal along the right and his flick was collected inside Bruges' area by Martial.
Moments later United had a scare. Brandon Williams missed a challenge so Emmanuel Bonaventure advanced towards Sergio Romero. When the ball found Hans Vanaken, Bruges' captain, he seemed certain to score yet Matic intervened and the danger fizzled out.
The next time United threatened this was via a sequence that began with Victor Lindelof and Dalot exchanging passes inside their half and featured a contribution from Luke Shaw before Andreas Pereira's shot was saved by Mignolet low to his left. Now, the latter was about to have a prime role in United conceding.
Matic overran the ball to give Bruges a goal-kick. Mignolet took this quickly, hitting a long delivery through the middle. This was collected by Bonaventure who held off Williams and calmly lobbed the advancing Romero. United immediately claimed to Aleksei Kulbakov that Mignolet had hit a moving ball but despite VAR being in use from this round on, the referee was unmoved.
Here was a test for United. And one that might have become sterner if Mats Rits had not scuffed an attempt near Romero's goal as Solskjær's side still gathered themselves. They escaped but continued to be vulnerable whenever Clement's men attacked. Harry Maguire was caught out of position so Percy Tau dropped in behind and from the ensuing play Bonaventure broke the United ranks again. This time it was near in and from a tight angle Romero saved.
All of this caused the Jan Breydelstadion to be in raucous voice. When Shaw pinged a pass to Maguire where he did not want it – yards from goal – the captain bought a foul by falling as Tau approached and the home crowd were in uproar.
At this juncture Solskjær may have looked at Bruno Fernandes on the bench and decided his midfield poise was required. United were poor – as embodied by Maguire scooping a regulation pass straight out. Yet, from this United equalised. Maxim De Cuyper aimed his throw-in at Brandon Mechele near halfway but the centre back dozed, Martial stole the ball, swooped towards Mignolet, and finished for a fine solo strike.
This had the stadium silent apart from the travelling support. It was Martial’s second finish in two outings and he came close to adding another. Once more the No 9’s skill fashioned him space and he was unlucky to see a left-foot shot from a 20-yard angle rebound off Mignolet’s left post, the goalkeeper’s fingertips saving his side.
United started the second half brightly. First, Juan Mata fed Dalot and his curving cross came close to creating for Martial. Then, Mata slipped in the Frenchman but when he should have fired at Mignolet he tried a pass back to the Spaniard and the move broke down.
From here any quality seeped from the contest – each side proving bereft of any spark. On show was a hodgepodge of mistimed touches and passes. Solskjær put Odion Ighalo, Fred and Bruno Fernandes on for the last phase of the match but no real upturn occurred.
Yet United end the happier on an evening that will not be remembered for too long at all. – Guardian