Man United's Champions League exit is what Louis van Gaal's side deserved
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- On a wild night in Germany, Man United were knocked out of the Champions League after a 3-2 Wolfsburg win in which Louis van Gaal's side took the early lead. Here are three points from the Volkswagen Arena:
1. Man United drop into the Europa League
Manchester United are out of the Champions League after a 3-2 defeat in Wolfsburg. The English side needed to equal or better PSV Eindhoven's result against CSKA Moscow. That seemed improbable after 75 minute as they trailed 2-1 to the German team, but then United's huge away following began cheering and singing. News had arrived from Eindhoven: CSKA had taken the lead against PSV. As things stood at that moment, Van Gaal's team were going through to the knockout stage of the Champions League, though they scarcely deserved it.
Qualification seemed more certain and prompted further celebrations after 82 minutes when a Josuha Guilavogui own goal made it 2-2. The joy lasted just two minutes before Naldo headed his second goal of the night to make it 3-2. Wolfsburg, who had never reached the Champions League knockout stage before and had also lost their previous seven encounters with English teams, were going through as group leaders, and United were going out of the Champions League and into the second-tier Europa League.
It's nowhere near good enough for a club of United's standing, but then again, this current United team has been nowhere near good enough for a club of United's standing for some time. Fans have long complained of the dull football under Van Gaal. In the loud Wolfsburg Arena, his side at least played with an attacking intent that had been lacking for most of this season. Yet with an injury-hit team, especially in defence, United conceded three times.
United's players waited to hear their fate at the end of the game before walking to applaud the away following. They sang "Oh United we love you," but the criticism of Van Gaal will increase sharply after his expensively assembled charges failed to meet one of his key objectives.
Privately, United contend that the Premier League is their priority for the next few seasons. Publicly, this United team is nowhere near good enough to challenge Europe's best sides.
2. Injuries finally leave United exposed
United's injury list is substantial but nowhere more so than in defence with Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia all missing. The club want to buy a left-back in January but think they'll struggle to get a player of the required quality, so they have to live with what they have.
And yet despite those absences, until now the defence has been the most encouraging aspect of United's season, the best in the Premier League and meanest at Old Trafford for two decades, where only one goal has been conceded domestically.
Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Guillermo Varela started in Wolfsburg. Such was the inexperience of the Uruguayan full-back Varela: he's barely known in his homeland, and travelling journalists were asking for the correct pronunciation of his name. With United more attack-minded, the defence was likely to be more exposed. And so it went; the defenders should have done better for both Wolfsburg's first-half goals. Varela and captain Smalling allowed Naldo to get in front of them to volley in the first goal, while the second was a brilliant combined attacking effort in which United's defence was easily pulled apart to leave David De Gea exposed.
When Darmian went off injured after 43 minutes, he was replaced by rookie Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, meaning that in their most important game of the season, United were forced to play with two full-backs who boasted just two previous appearances between them. They were joined by Nick Powell in the second half, a curious move since the midfielder was making his first United appearance since a 4-0 defeat at MK Dons 16 months ago. He replaced Mata, who'd played well. The away fans in the crowd of 26,400 weren't the only ones who were surprised.
3. Martial seized on chance to lead attack
With Wayne Rooney absent, the responsibility of leading United's attack fell to 19-year-old Anthony Martial. The Frenchman took it. After an explosive start at Old Trafford following his transfer from Monaco, Martial had scored only one in 13 games -- United's previous European away goal in Moscow. But he made it two in 14 as he put United ahead after 10 minutes.
Daley Blind slid a ball forward to Juan Mata, with the Spaniard finding the space between the lines that he always seeks. Martial ran onto Mata's glorious pass and, showing composure, steered the ball into the corner beyond Diego Benaglio. The United players celebrated in front of the travelling away fans, who were astonished that they'd scored a goal -- and a rare first-half one at that. United's official ticket allocation was 1,500, but Wolfsburg were inundated with ticket requests from United fans and sold tickets in areas adjacent to the official away section. The huge following became apparent, as 5,000 fans celebrated Martial's strike.
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Their celebrations lasted three minutes. In an end-to-end games seldom seen under Van Gaal, Wolfsburg were awarded a free kick after Blind fouled Vierinha 35 yards out. Rodriguez hit a low ball toward the United goal, and central defender Naldo stole ahead of Smalling and Varela to volley low past De Gea at his near post.
United were initially unabashed, and Martial sped toward the Wolfsburg goal two minutes later when he centred for Mata. The Reds' front four of Mata, Memphis Depay, Jesse Lingard and Martial continued to attack with pace and precision, with Martial also finding space on the wing. After 24 minutes, he nutmegged Christian Trasch on the left and set up Darmian to cross. But just five minutes later, Wolfsburg, who'd barely threatened, were 2-1 ahead after Julian Draxler and Max Kruse passed their way through the visiting defence, drawing De Gea out before Vieirinha swept the ball in.
In a dramatic finish to the game, United drew level then Wolfsburg got their winner. United were out. They didn't deserve to be in.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.