The rain-streaked night had been bad enough before Ashley Young made it worse, in a desperately familiar way. Against a team whose manager had proclaimed the opposition to be the “magnificent Manchester United” Young compounded his reputation for penalty theatrics by earning yet another dubious one.
David Moyes has given Young only one Premier League start since his dive got Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak sent off in September and prompted the United manager to agree that he would have a word with his player. The second-half-spot kick Young won from Real Sociedad’s unfortunate Markel Bergara suggested the message has still not provoked the desired effect. Just as it did not when Sir Alex Ferguson expressed displeasure with the Young dives that had QPR’s Sean Derry sent off and Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark penalised last year.
You hope that a desire to earn affection from United’s fans might at least persuade Young to change. Instead, there was a moral justice about goalkeeper Claudio Bravo flying to his right to stop Robin van Persie’s ensuing penalty – an outcome which may actually protect Young from the full level of opprobrium that could head his way. It also effectively confirmed the goalless outcome which the game threatened to end in from early in the night. The failure to capitalise on Bayer Leverkusen’s sterile draw in Donetsk means that United now face a tense night on the banks of the Rhine later this month, ideally needing a win ultimately to progress as group winners. They will be without Marouane Fellani, dismissed here for a second yellow card after a rash tackle on David Zurutuza in the game’s closing stages. The Belgian still struggles to settle to his new role.
The rather careworn stadium told of a San Sebastian team – absent from the Champions League for a decade before this season – who have known far better days. The images on the stadium walls near the tunnel were black and white and their ambition seemed to be monochrome, too. The aim was to emulate United rather than capitalise on their year of transition and sweep them away. Deabru Urdinak (“Blue Devils”) was the Basque headline on the front of the match programme.
David Moyes made age the headline event of his starting XI – Ryan Giggs’ 950th start for the club – rather than select Adnan Januzaj, whose omission from the squad pointed to him being the player who will be expected to tear into Arsenal on Sunday.
No one was tearing into anyone for the first 45 minutes. United offered a marginally greater creative threat for the first half hour andLa Real showed minimal ambition to strike a blow and prolong a stay in the competition. But after some encouraging early interplay – Fellaini carving open the first half’s only enervating move which swept the length of the pitch and saw Shinji Kagawa despatch a deflected shot narrowly wide, from Wayne Rooney’s lay-off – the United engine began to clog. They were untidy, ceding regular possession. Fellaini struggled again to reach the same cognitive level as those alongside him, with several passes falling astray. Chris Smalling sacrificed several chances to deliver the ball with menace from the wide right area.
One soft Kagawa attempt aside, there was not even one shot on target during that first half, and by the end of the period it was the home side who were beginning to believe they might strike a blow. David de Gea was called upon to punch strongly, Carlos Vela finally managed a searing run down the right which Nemanja Vidic brought to an immaculately timed end, and Alberto de la Bella feinted around Antonio Valencia to fire a yard wide of De Gea’s left post.
The sense that the occasion called for an injection of Robin van Persie was only compounded by a miss of extraordinary proportions by Javier Hernandez, whose own embarrassment was obvious after he stepped forward to take Kagawa’s left foot cross and send it soaring over the bar with his own left foot from two yards.
The only surprise was that Rooney was selected to make way for the Dutchman but he and Young, who arrived simultaneously for Hernandez, immediately combined ruthlessly, when van Persie shrewdly manoeuvred himself wide to create space for himself and thumped a Young cross against the base of Bravo’s left upright. Then that moment of dismally familiar controversy, Young going to ground under the mildest – mildest – infringement from Bergara, who might have plucked at his arm as he eased into the area. Fellaini’s dismissal compounded things.
The raucous United fans ended the night with renditions of “there’s only one Keano” and elicited a response from Roy Keane in the ITV studio. The 90 minutes just concluded had only served to confirmed that fact.
* The other match in the group also ended goalless, German side Bayer Leverkusen held at Shakhtar Donetsk to remain second in the table, a point behind leaders United.
Results so far
Manchester United 4-2 Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad 0-2 Shakhtar Donetsk; Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Real Sociedad, Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 Manchester United; Manchester United 1-0 Real Sociedad, Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 Shakhtar Donetsk; Real Sociedad 0-0 Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk 0-0 Bayer Leverkusen.
27 Nov Bayer Leverkusen v Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk v Real Sociedad. 10 Dec Man United v Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Sociedad v Bayer Leverkusen.
Man of the match Bravo.
Match rating 4/10.
Referee N Rizzoli (It).