Manchester United collapsed out of the Champions League group stage in breathless and borderline farcical fashion, losing 3-2 away at Wolfsburg. Despite chasing the game for long periods, despite another clutch of injuries, and despite a makeshift defence almost completely wasting away, United looked as dangerous as they have all season, and in truth the result could have been anything up to a 6-6 draw.
United began the game in a 4-3-3 and in unusually attacking mood, and almost paid for it in the second minute, as Andre Schurrle, entirely unmarked in the centre of the box, sliced a bouncing cross over a baffled-looking David de Gea and into the crowd. But what followed was United's most enterprising 45 minutes of football for some time.
Juan Mata had been tasked with playmaking duties, and after nine minutes he combined with Anthony Martial to open the scoring.The little Spaniard slipped a perfect through ball into the space behind a dawdling Wolfsburg defence, and the youngster raced into the inside left channel, opened up his body, and tucked the ball past Diego Benaglio. Later, the Swiss goalkeeper had to make a smart save after Marouane Fellaini was first to a corner, and throughout the opening period, United's attacking movement was sparky and they showed real intent to get forward.
Of course, the price of all that ambition was giant holes at the back. Guillermo Varela looked understandably shaky on his debut, and at times Bastian Schweinsteiger was left covering on his own. Though Naldo's equaliser was a sweet strike, he had no defender near him at a set piece, and though Wolfsburg's passing for their second was quickwitted and precise, Schweinsteiger made life far too easy for Julian Draxler by committing to a tackle he was never going to win.
Jesse Lingard thought he had tied things up on the stroke of half-time, but Mata was in both an offside position and the goalkeeper's eyeline, and a late (but probably correct) flag protected Wolfsburg's lead. United's luck wasn't in when it came to injuries, either; Matteo Darmian limped off holding his hamstring, and 18-year-old Cameron Borthwick-Jackson came on for his Champions League debut.
It took United ten minutes or so to get going in the second half, though once they did the game cracked wide open. Memphis Depay saw his flying volley clawed over by Benaglio, Mata nearly dislocated his leg attempting to reach a loose ball on the edge of the six-yard box, and Memphis Depay sent a whipped free kick inches past the far post.
But United were even more open than before, and David de Gea had to make two quick saves in succession just after the hour mark. The first was his own doing, scrambling back after he'd come for a deep ball and been beaten to it. The second, though, was proper goalkeeping, an instinctive upward punch after United's defence found themselves exposed, and Schurrle, once again, found himself in too much space. From the ensuing corner, a Wolfsburg attacked slapped a first time shot past the post and into the advertising hoardings.
With fifteen minutes left, it briefly looked as though United were about to be rescued from their own struggles, as CSKA Moscow took the lead in the Netherlands. But PSV quickly equalised, and Chris Smalling went down injured. With Michael Carrick and Nick Powell having already come on, United were out of substitutes, and Smalling limped his way up front to offer a one-legged attacking option.
And it worked! Well, sort of. With ten minutes left, Daley Blind sent in a deep cross, and Fellaini won the header. Benaglio came to punch, only to see Joshua Guilavogui loop a header up and into his own net. But it didn't matter too much: a minute and 20 seconds later, Naldo restored the lead from another corner. At almost the same moment, PSV took the lead, and United needed two goals and a win.
They didn't get them, though they came pretty close. Wolfsburg defenders were forced into two flying blocks in the last five minutes. The damage to the campaign, though, had been done well before this game; if United had played like this against PSV at home, they'd have taken them to pieces, and none of this would have mattered in the slightest.