Manchester United’s difficult season got a lot worse on Thursday night as Denmark’s Midtjylland embarrassed them 2-1 in the first leg of their Europa League tie. United do take an away goal back Old Trafford for next week’s return, but this was a shambles for a club of their size and ambition.
"It’s not good enough, not acceptable," United captain Michael Carrick said after the match. "The performance is nowhere near good enough and it has to be better."
Outplayed for long stretches by a team nowhere near their weight class, this was another humiliating upset for United in a season filled with them. It will pile immense pressure on the club to sack manager Louis van Gaal before the return leg next week, and, frankly, it is hard to see how the club can avoid doing so.
"In the second half, Midtjylland were winning every ball and that’s very disappointing," Van Gaal lamented. "But we still have a chance, I think.
United are desperate because their easiest route into next year’s Champions League is via winning the Europa League. And they are weak — or, perhaps weaker — because they limped into Denmark with 13 injured players absent. That list includes Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Marouane Fellaini, and now Wayne Rooney, out for six weeks (knee) and Matteo Darmian (dislocated shoulder). Amazingly, United lost another player before kickoff when David De Gea was mysteriously injured in the warm-up, handing a first start to Sergio Romero.
"It is the law of Murphy, I think! When you start a game and your goalkeeper is number 14 [on the injury list] then you are not starting like usual," Van Gaal said.
Unheralded Midtjylland — who were crushed by Napoli 9-1 on aggregate in the group stages — justly fancied their chances. Boasting a largely anonymous roster (anoraks might remember Kristoffer Olsson from a very brief spell at Arsenal), the Danes have nonetheless been consistent in their league, sitting third at gametime behind a remarkable ability to convert set pieces into goals. Still, a small Danish side couldn’t possibly trouble the world’s richest club. Could it?
Could it ever: for large portions of the first half, Midtjylland were on the front foot, forcing Romero to make two key saves. Kian Hansen had a header swatted off the line in the 11th minute by Romero when he was left unmarked, forcing Michael Carrick to play cleanup; Vaclev Kadlec raced in alone in the 36th but dallied on the ball, allowing Romero to get set and make a critical save.
With Manchester United’s defense in disarray and their midfield looking worse — Ander Herrera and Carrick frequently looked as if they’d never met, much less played football — Midtjylland went right down the gut on them time and time again.
But it was Manchester United who managed to strike first, in sloppy fashion. Memphis Depay had a cross fall to him in the box, but he slipped. From the floor, he managed to wheel his foot onto the ball and off the glove of keeper Mikkel Andersen and into the net. It was a poor goal for the Danes to concede, but it did not deflate them.
Right back down the gut they came, and five minutes later, Pione Sisto had the ball in the back of the net. Carrick coughed the ball up, allowing Sisto to seize it, and he then stormed left to right to blast the ball in off Chris Smalling. Herrera was so badly beat on the play it was a wonder the medic didn’t come out to check if he was still actually breathing. And then, the ref blew the whistle for the half — and there was real dread on the faces of United’s players.
The action continued after the break with Sisto forcing a save out of Romero in the 55th — and United spurning two good chances. Daley Blind teed up Juan Mata with time and space only to see the Spaniard head the ball wide from ten yards. Jesse Lingard then latched onto a cross from Herrera and volleyed it onto the bar and away from an acute angle.
Sub Paul Onuachu then forced a fantastic fingertip save from Romero, immediately after entering. Olsson, under no pressure at all, fizzed in a cross from the right flank on the hour that Onuachu headed on to the far post, only to be denied.
Onuachu was not done yet. A sloppy ball conceded by Mata in the 77th allowed the big striker to collect, turn and blow a ball to the far post through young Donald Love’s legs. Suddenly, the Danes were ahead and the panic on United’s players’ faces was very real.
Sisto nearly racked up a third minutes later as United again went to sleep, and as time worn down, the Manchester giants looked more ragged than a Sunday league team. Midtjylland continued to slice through them at will, and despite a late flurry that really amounted to nothing, United had no answer for the surprisingly energetic Danes.
Onuachu summed it up perfectly: "I think it’s fantastic! A dream come true to play against Manchester United. We stuck to the tactics of the coach and we look forward to the return leg."