Manchester United’s bid for a top-four finish suffered a setback at Molineux last night as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw his side reduced to 10 men and undone by a disastrous piece of defending.
Chris Smalling and David de Gea were the prime culprits as they failed to deal with Raul Jimenez’s awkward header, from Joao Moutinho’s 77th minute cross.
The pair tangled with each other, under pressure from Leo Dendoncker, with Smalling making the final touch before the ball rolled slowly over the line.
But it had been the dismissal of Ashley Young, for a second bookable offence just before the hour, that proved the turning point of an entertaining evening and a strong show of form from Wolves ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final with Watford.
Solskjaer had set his side a target of 15 points from their remaining seven games to be “sure” of a place in the top four and Champions League football – a slightly optimistic prediction given the form of Chelsea and Arsenal, in particular.
But, in the opening exchanges at least, it appeared three of those points would be coming from the visit to Molineux, seen of Solskjaer’s biggest disappointment as manager when United exited the FA Cup to Nuno Espirito Santos’s side last month.
They led to a clinical 13th minute goal from Scott McTominay, not a bad effort from the Scotland international midfielder who had never scored a goal in professional football previously.
A patient left-wing build-up ended with Jesse Lingard playing the ball central to Fred who picked out McTominay with a window of opportunity 25 yards out.
There was still much for McTominay to do but do it, he did. A crisp 25-yard strike was expertly judged, beating the dive of Rui Patricio on its way into the far, left-hand corner of the Wolves net.
The goal was just rewards for United’s electrifying start, which had seen Lingard lunge forward from kick-off and force Rui Patricio into the game’s first save with all of five seconds on the clock.
Romelu Lukaku could, and should, have opened the scoring five minutes later, from Diogo Dalot’s delightful cross, but could only steer his six-yard header into the body of Rui Patricio.
And, one-up, United could have doubled their advantage after 16 minutes when Lukaku lofted in an expert cross which was met by Lingard whose header was too close to Rui Patricio and allowed the keeper to claw the ball away.
But United, starting a game with three at the back for the first time on Solskjaer’s watch, would fail their first real defensive test as the home side, preparing for the weekend FA Cup semi-final with Watford, finally responded to their enthusiastic and noisy support.
On 24 minutes, Willy Boly slipped the ball through for Jimenez who hurried a shot over, high and wide, from a promising position but United were rattled and about to prove it.
De Gea’s pass out of the area a minute later was poor, Fred’s control equally bad, and Moutinho capitalised with a challenge that saw the ball break to Jimenez.
The striker’s first-time pass played in Diogo Jota whose finish offered De Gea no chance to redeem himself for his role in the build-up.
Had Dendoncker not wasted a glorious chance from six yards, this time from a Luke Shaw error, United could have been in even greater trouble although an entertaining first half would end finely balanced with Ruben Neves’ deflected shot saved by De Gea and Lukaku rolling a shot inches wide of the Wolves goal.
United’s recovery continued after the restart, with a Lukaku cross flicked on by Paul Pogba for McTominay who stooped low and saw his diving header well saved by the outstretched hand of Rui Patricio.
But United’s hopes of stamping their authority on the game were not helped on 57 minutes when Young, booked five minutes earlier for a foul on Diogo Jota, was shown a second yellow for an even worse assault on the same player, taking him out shin-high.
De Gea had to make a good save, as Smalling threatened to score his second own goal of the night, and a late run by Ivan Cavaleiro ended with the Wolves substitute striking the bar.
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