Hapless United plunged into Euro chasm
Wolfsburg 3 Manchester United 2
The brief flickers of hope kept on coming but there was no holding off the fate which befell Manchester United, who were the second best side on the night and have not even been able to call themselves that across the course of a very modest Champions League qualification group. Elimination.
In a wild last 15 minutes their small enclave of supporters were lifted by news that CSKA Moscow had mustered a goal to save United, 300 miles to the east in Eindhoven, and then one of Wolfsburg's own - defender Joshua Guilavogui - supplied an own-goal by which Loius van Gaal's side somehow conspired to find themselves level at 2-2 against a side who had had all the attacking answers. But then they conceded again, just as PSV Eindhoven turned their night around. Louis van Gaal's deadpan powers prevailed to the end but the ignominy this constitutes cannot be masked by any claim that the Premier League matters more. Couldn't defend; struggled to score: that's all that can be said a night which was as bad as it comes for a manager whose spending has exceeded £200m.
This time Van Gaal cannot even parade the defensive integrity which he has brought at the expense of creative expression which was almost entirely absent again until the side's Champions League campaign was all-but extinguished. Now for the worst of all worlds: a Europa League campaign which has the potential to make the side's drive for the Premier League far more difficult.
The United board had anticipated a mid-winter's trip of no material significance on the banks of the Aller, with qualification sealed and perhaps even the artificial snow slopes which presently feature at the Volkswagen museum to pass the players' time. Instead they found themselves plunged into anxiety, wondering if the absence of defensive cover which forced a debut for the Uruguayan signed by David Moyes two years ago would work. It didn't, in fact. Guillermo Varela, the defender in question, had impressed Zinadine Zidane during last season on loan at Real Madrid B but the contest between him and Andre Schurrle on the German left resembled one of those twitchy nights on the continent watching Rafael da Silva's eccentricities during the late years of Alex Ferguson's tenure.
The game was in its first three minutes when Varela drifted inside, neglecting to see Schurrle waiting to receive a golden opportunity but place a half-volley over. There would be more discomfort for the defender as United's focus on attack saw them lose the defensive strength which has been a saving grace through these barren autumn weeks.
When Anthony Martial scored his first goal in 10 games, 10 minutes in, it ought to have taken all the worry away, not least because there were signs in that strike of the young Frenchman whose United career began with such electricity. When Juan Mata was allowed the space to drive a ball into the area for him, Martial's run bisected the central defenders and he slotted home with some nonchalance.
But it was another of those now familiar occasions when the very intermittent chances - the Marouane Fellaini header into the turf from Mata's corner which Diego Benaglio comfortably flipped away and the Jesse Lingard half-chance curled straight at the goalkeeper - needed to be converted because they were few and far between. Wolfsburg were the ones with attacking menace.
The home side trailed for the mere three minutes it took their captain Naldo to get a run on Daley Blind and meet Ricardo Rodriguez's curled left-foot free-kick from 20 yards with a sumptuous first-time volley that Chris Smalling's reactions were too slow to prevent. And then came the kind of move which the United support have come to yearn for, a driving run at the defence from Julian Draxler after Schurrle had switched the play with Varela down on the seat of his pants behind him. The 22-year-old German eased past two players with ease, executed a gorgeous one-two with Max Kruse, drew David de Gea and squared for the Portugeuse Vieirinha to walk it in. United's defenders shuddered as they reflected. They had simply not known how to deter Draxler.
The same visiting players left the field bitterly aggrieved to have been denied their own equaliser - a Lingard strike from the left which sailed in on the stroke of half time. There was with no indication from the linesman for a full 20 seconds that Mata (left), offside and in the goalkeeper's eyeline, had affected play. But the decision was valid.
Darmian's injury minutes before half-time compounded the defensive trouble, with a replacement, Cameron Borthwick Jackson, who had just 14 minutes' experience to his name. But though there was greater urgency about United - one touch where two would have done, Carrick arriving for an insignificant Schweinsteiger and one desperate six-yard box attempt by Mata to convert - it was David de Gea who was plunged into work to make two saves. He retreated to scooping a ball out from under the bar after Schurrle had done for Varela once again and then made a reflex stop to prevent what would have been a Lingard own-goal.
Then came Moscow's goal. Then came United's improbable equaliser - Guilavogui heading into his own net as he tried to clear another header Fellaini had directed into the ground over his own bar. Parity was pitifully short before reality bit. Wolfsburg stormed up to the other end of the field, where Naldo met a corner from the left with a downward header. It beat the dive of De Gea and Blind's desperate attempt to hack it off the line came to nothing.
Still, United tried to conjure something. Martial was denied from close range by Dante after Depay had lifted a ball through to him. Smalling looked sure to convert as a ball fizzed across the face of goal to him, only for Marcel Schafer to divert his shot wide. The urgency came too late. United received what their tournament has merited. (© Independent News Service)