Juan Mata was the star of the show as Manchester United got off the mark in the Champions League with a narrow win over Wolfsburg.
Daniel Caligiuri took advantage of some slack defending from the hosts to put Wolfsburg ahead in the fourth minute, but Mata won and converted a penalty to equalize 11 minutes before the break. The Spaniard then backheeled a lovely pass straight into Chris Smalling’s path after halftime, with the defender the ball past Diego Benaglio to give United a 2-1 win.
United looked anything but potential Champions League winners, as Bastian Schweinsteiger claimed they were on the eve of the match, but Louis van Gaal will not be too perturbed. After losing their first Group B match to PSV earlier this month, the United boss knew today’s was a must-win encounter, and he will be glad his team dragged themselves over the line against a disciplined and threatening German opponent.
After a wobbly start, United are now second in their group, level on three points with Wolfsburg, PSV and CSKA Moscow.
United attacked with intent from the off, but the hosts were stunned in the fourth minute when Wolfsburg took the lead. Smalling, Morgan Schneiderlin and Daley Blind failed to dispossess Caligiuri in the right corner. He played the ball inside to Max Kruse, who returned the ball to the midfielder in the box and he jabbed the ball past David de Gea. The goal would not have stood had right back Antonio Valencia been in line with his fellow defenders.
United looked for an immediate reply but struggled to find one. Dante flung himself into the path of a Mata curler and diverted the goal-bound shot over the bar.
Anthony Martial shrugged off his marker and negotiated his way past another before rifling a shot just wide. Matteo Darmian put in a crucial block deep inside the home box and United immediately went on the counter. Martial turned his marker and squared to the unmarked Wayne Rooney but he planted the ball into the crowd.
Finally the nerves eased inside Old Trafford when Mata cut in from the right and swung in a cross which was impeded by Caligiuri’s outstretched left arm. Referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot and Mata slotted the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.
United had more composure about them in defense after Ashley Young came on for Valencia at halftime.
Wolfsburg looked for another early goal, but luckily for United, Darmian was on hand to deny Bas Dost an easy tap in.
United then put themselves in charge of the game in the 53rd minute. Smalling rolled the ball past Wolfsburg goalkeeper Benaglio, but Mata should take the lion’s share of the credit for the goal. The Spaniard flicked a wayward pass over the Wolfsburg back four and into Smalling’s path. The defender slid in and guided the ball past Benaglio with his right foot.
Caligiuri tested De Gea with a low shot as Wolfsburg looked for an equalizer. Nicklas Bendtner and Andre Schurrle came off the bench to add to the Germans’ attacking threat. The former Arsenal striker fluffed a good chance just after entering the pitch and Wolfsburg continued to apply pressure, but United hung on for their first Champions League win under Van Gaal.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
Big 3 points for the lads.. Positive result going into the weekend against Arsenal! MoM – Juan Mata #UCL
— Andrew Cole (@vancole9) September 30, 2015
David de Gea: 6 (out of 10)
Antonio Valencia: 5
Chris Smalling: 7
Daley Blind: 6
Matteo Darmian: 7
Bastian Schweinsteiger: 7
Morgan Schneiderlin: 5
Juan Mata: 8
Wayne Rooney: 5
Memphis Depay: 6
Anthony Martial: 7
Ashley Young: 6
Andreas Pereira: 6
Phil Jones: 7
Diego Benaglio: 6
Christian Trasch: 6
Ricardo Rodriguez: 6
Joshua Guilavogui: 6
Maximilian Arnold: 6
Daniel Caligiuri: 7
Max Kruse: 7
Julian Draxler: 7
Bas Dost: 6
Nicklas Bendtner: 6
Andre Schurrle: 7
Sebastian Jung: 6
Juan Mata: Anthony Martial once again produced some eye-catching moments in attack, but Mata was United’s real stand-out performer. Caused frequent problems for the Wolfsburg defense after the visitors’ early goal, both won and scored the equalizing penalty, and teed up Chris Smalling’s winner with a delightful flick.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Daniel Caligiuri’s handball: Although they had shown some threat, things were still looking very nervy for United when Caligiuri blocked the ball with his arm, prompting the referee to award the spot-kick through which they got back on level terms. Had they not had that slice of luck and instead fallen 2-0 behind, one wonders if the Red Devils would have been able to turn the game around against this confident-looking Wolfsburg side.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Given how things looked early on, with the hosts 1-0 down and the prospect of a second straight Group B defeat appearing a very real possibility, as well as the way they were hanging on a bit towards the end, United boss Louis van Gaal may well feel some relief at the outcome. His side played well enough at times in claiming a fourth straight victory in all competitions, but certainly this is still not the ruthless United of old. Meanwhile, opposite number Dieter Hecking will only be disappointed that a very creditable away performance from his men could not yield anything.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
United ultimately got the job done, getting off the mark in the group with their first win – but the manner in which they saw the result out highlighted that the points had been claimed in somewhat unconvincing style.
WHO’S UP NEXT
Arsenal vs Manchester United (Premier League, Sunday, Oct. 4)
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Wolfsburg (Bundesliga, Saturday, Oct. 3)
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