That’s why you don’t do things the hard way. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talked up Manchester United’s history of famous comebacks - both those in recent weeks and in years gone by - before this do-or-die trip to Leipzig and came close to producing one of the most famous in the club’s long and storied history. Close, but not close enough.
A late Bruno Fernandes penalty and a header from Paul Pogba - dropped to the substitutes’ bench at the start of the night - put United within touching distance of the point that they required to progress to the Champions League knock-out stages but they were ultimately undone by the abysmal 80 minutes which preceded their late rally.
A draw was all that they required against last season’s semi-finalists but even that became a remote prospect when goals from Angelino, Amadou Haidara and Justin Kluivert - as well as dismal United defending - allowed RB Leipzig to establish an ultimately unassailable lead. Julen Nagelsmann’s side did their level best to throw a place in the last-16 away but survived the tense final stages.
United will earn credit in some quarters for making this a contest late on. Solskjaer will praise the spirit of his players. Pogba’s commitment has been questioned in recent days but he made the difference late on.
And yet, none of that should not overshadow the fact that United came into this game with a far easier task than their opponents. It should not excuse the majority of the performance which followed. It should not hide the fact that this is a significant setback.
Put simply, United should not have been in this position. They won their first two games against Paris Saint-Germain and Leipzig, only to lose the third against fourth-seed Istanbul Basaksehir due to amateurish defensing. Even after that, they only needed a point from their final two games. Even after losing last week to Paris, they only needed to avoid another defeat last night. Solskjaer and his players kept passing up their chance to progress and could not keep getting away with it.
And this team which makes things hard for themselves could hardly have made their task more difficult with the way they started. Leipzig had clearly identified far-post crosses as one of United’s many defensive weaknesses and exploited it within two minutes of kick-off. Marcel Sabitzer’s switch of play from right to left caught Aaron Wan-Bissaka napping and unleashed Angelino, the Manchester City loanee, left in acres of room inside the penalty area.
A torrid evening in the Manchester derby effectively ended Angelino’s City career this time last year but he caught his first-time strike low, hard and beautifully, as if relishing this chance to enact revenge. Wan-Bissaka, meanwhile, may be a supreme one-on-one defender but he is liable to losing his man at the back post.
The evening may have taken a different turn had Mason Greenwood levelled a few minutes later with United’s only moment of promise during the first half but the type of Van Persie-esque finishing displayed at the London Stadium on Saturday eluded him. After stepping inside from the right onto his left foot, his tame shot was easily held by Peter Gulacsi.
Normal service was quickly resumed. Leipzig began to overrun United once more and recognised that far post crosses still troubled their opponents. This time Angelino turned provider, once again taking advantage of Wan-Bissaka’s delayed reactions to find Haidara at the far post, and his finish was every bit as good as the first: low, hard and past a helpless David de Gea.
Desperate, United attempted to claim there had been a push on Alex Telles in the build-up. It was a lame excuse. Nothing could justify either their defending or their slipshod start to such an important game. If anything, they were fortunate not to enter the interval further behind. Willi Orban thought he had all but secured Leipzig’s progression by tapping in a Ibrahima Konaté header which hit the post, only to be rightly flagged.
Solskjaer had to change something. Donny van de Beek was introduced and immediately posed a greater threat in the penalty box than his team-mates combined. Harry Maguire could have done better with a far post header of a Fernandes free-kick that he hesitated to meet. Pogba was called for on the hour mark. United began to improve on their first-half display. It would have been hard not to.
If a comeback was possible, it was possible through Fernandes. The architect of almost everything that this United side does right, he came closest to reducing the arrears with a free-kick that smacked the underside of the crossbar and bounced clear of Gulacsi’s goal. A few inches lower and the turnaround that Solskjaer had talked up would have seemed possible. Instead, they were all but eliminated less than a minute later.
Leipzig went up the other end, where yet more appalling United defending allowed Angelino’s deflected cross to roll all the way through the penalty area to Kluivert, who could hardly believe his luck. As Maguire and others attempted to find their bearings, he was left with a simple tap-in from six yards to seal progression. Or so he, his team-mates and Nagelsmann thought.
Solskjaer’s prophecy was part-right. There was still time for a flicker of resistance. Greenwood won a contentious penalty from Konate that Fernandes converted. Two minutes later, and in almost comical fashion, Pogba rose highest to connect with a Fernandes corner and the ball took two deflections to bounce past Gulacsi. The tables had suddenly turned but would not turn far enough.
United’s one chance in the dying embers of the game was a Nordi Mukiele interception that would have snuck in at the near-post for an own goal if not for Gulacsi’s reactions. Maguire, waiting for a rebound that never came, held his head in his hands. Solskjaer knows better than any figure in the club’s history that even if you leave it late, anything is still possible. But United had left it too late this time.
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