Manchester United crashed out of the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday night, falling 3-2 to Wolfsburg in Germany. The result, combined with PSV’s 2-1 win over eliminated CSKA Moscow, condemned United to the drop and gave Wolfsburg the top of the group. In a see-saw, go-for-broke game, United drew level twice only for an unlikely hero, Wolfsburg defender Naldo, to have an immediate reply each time.
It was a bitter blow for Louis van Gaal’s men as United fell out of the group stage for the first time since 2011-12. They will now play Thursday night football in the Europa League as the third-place finishers of Group B.
"You can say that we were the favorites but we were a very tight group," United’s Dutch manager told the BT Sport. All the results are like that , they’re always one-zero or 2-1. It was a crazy match. They scored the goals, they are cancelling goals – still we have chances but they also have chances."
Derided as boring for much of this season, it must be said that United did not drop out meekly on Tuesday. This was an absorbing, open contest that arguably saw the best football the Manchester giants have played all season. The problem for them was that Wolfsburg were every bit their equal, and United’s known weaknesses — in the back and in the middle — were ruthlessly teased apart.
Forced to start Guillermo Varela in back due to a host of injuries to his defense, van Gaal knew he was taking a gamble. Wolfsburg almost immediately made them pay for their callowness with an Andre Schurrle shot lifted just over the bar after a broken play allowed the ball to fall in the box to him with barely two minutes gone.
But United regrouped and scored first, a fine bit of play sparked by Daley Blind. Seeing Juan Mata in space, Blind put the ball forward for the Spanish playmaker to place. With Anthony Martial running around the corner far left, the teen was able to receive the ball and fire home past a despairing Diego Benaglio, who got a glove to it but was not able to keep it out.
Naldo, victimized on the play, immediately made amends at the other end. With Marouane Fellaini conceding a reckless foul and allowing Ricardo Rodriguez a free kick in a decent position. Belting the ball over the wall, Rodriguez found Naldo at the far post, and he volleyed in in at the near past David De Gea.
Rodriguez would have to come off shortly thereafter with a hamstring injury, but the goals sparked a wide-open spell that saw both teams forcing chances. Martial, who faded in influence as the match went on, almost forced a costly bobble from Benaglio with his swerving shot along the endline that the keeper badly muffed — but there were no men in red there to sweep the loose ball in. And Fellaini’s fine header from close range was well-stopped instinctively by the Wolfsburg keeper.
But when Wolfsburg took the lead, it came off a brilliant team goal. Benaglio fed the ball out to Julian Draxler, who sent a searching ball down the near sideline to Schurrle. Schurrle put Varela on the floor, cut the ball back and teed up Draxler with the return on the far side. Draxler then weaved his way through traffic, stymying Bastian Schweinsteiger and playing a neat one-two with Max Kruse to leave the United back line rooted. With the entire net to shoot at, Draxler unselfishly pushed the ball left to Vierinha for the tap in. It will stand as one of the goals of the tournament.
Draxler nearly put the game decisively to bed in the 39th when Schweinsteiger gave away the ball in his own final third, allowing the midfielder to race onto the pack. A moment of hesitation saw Matteo Darmian go to ground, putting Draxler’s shot off enough for De Gea to save. The move ended up hurting Darmian; he would be replaced before the half by Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
There was a short-lived moment of glee for United at the stroke of the half, when Jesse Lingard thought he had scored a fine goal from long range, only to have the flag go up late. Borthwick-Jackson fed Lingard, and his attempted cross ended up eluding everyone to nestle inside the far post. But Juan Mata was yards offside and appeared to be interfering with Benaglio. As Wolfsburg protested, match referee Milorad Mažić waved the goal off — sparking a confrontation between United assistant Ryan Giggs and the fourth official. The call stood.
"When you see that (the disallowed goal) as a linesman then you are very good and you give first that it is a goal and then a few players come and say to you, and then you change your mind, it’s strange in my opinion," an upset van Gaal added after the match. "I don’t think that the goalkeeper was interferred by Mata because the ball is turning in the goal so I don’t think he can reach that ball but of course he sees Mata in the offside position and he takes the benefit of that and they are criticising the referee."
The second half saw United and Wolfsburg trading blows like Philly heavyweights. Mata and Memphis Depay nearly hauled United level on the hour, not once but twice, but twice Benaglio got a big mitt to the ball to claw it away.
At the other end, Schurrle was every bit the harasser, forcing two magnificent saves out of De Gea, including one of a long-range circus kick that had the keeper leaping back like a coho. Kruse then incredibly missed from the top of the box with a volley that seemed destined to nip inside the post — only to trim wide.
United grabbed a lifeline in the 83rd minute when Fellaini headed a ball into the turf. Benaglio came for the ball put could only watch in horror as his own defender, Joshua Guilavogui, headed the ball up and over him and into the net. The game seemed done — but it was not. Right down the field came the Germans, and winning a corner, Naldo beat Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling to head the winner in.
And still — it was not a done deal. Martial had a ball taken right off his boot with two minutes to play, and Smalling had a shot blocked away in a goal-mouth scramble.
If there is a bright spot for United fans after this latest collapse, it is this: They can play out and out attacking football. Where they are struggling is in the back, and with their established talents. The fact is, van Gaal’s expensive makeover may not have gone far enough.
Information from The Press Association was used in this report.