With nobody watching, with nothing to play for, and with an already relegated team for opposition, Manchester United contrived to make a spectacle of themselves once again. Cardiff weren’t particularly adventurous opposition, but then Cardiff didn’t need to be: all they had to do was watch United shamble around for an hour and a half, while taking the couple of chances that fell their way.
The game began in cursed circumstances. Elsewhere, Liverpool and Manchester City walked out into the sunshine knowing that whatever happened, they had pleased their fans, demolished their other competition, and taken the title race to the final day.
In Manchester, meanwhile, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer an experimental first XI to play a meaningless game. Well, perhaps meaningless is a little wide of the mark. If there was nothing sporting riding on this game — United having already botched their chances of making the top four — then that only opened up space for the making of other points. Can we, should we, read anything into this teamsheet?
A front six of academy graduates; a fistful of expensive signings left out of the squad. Mason Greenwood and Andreas Pereira in; Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku out. Is this the future that Solskjaer wants? Is this a sign of things to come? And does it really have to include Phil Jones?
Anyway, the strange team made a quiet start of things. The bright spark of the early stages was Mason Greenwood, who moved around Old Trafford like a striker born, drifting beyond defenders into pockets of space. After three minutes he sent a Diogo Dalot cross looping over the bar; on 11, he slipped a pass to Jesse Lingard, ghosted into the area, and nodded down but too close to the keeper.
There was, inevitably, a certain end of term feel to proceedings, which perhaps explains Jon Moss’s strange penalty decision after 20 minutes. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing swung a leg at the ball, missed completely, and fell over, at which point the referee looked up from his deckchair in the centre circle, pointed vaguely at the spot, and then promptly fell back asleep.
Cardiff accepted their gift; Greenwood hit the post a few minutes later. And then your correspondent spent approximately 5 minutes pressing refresh and swearing at his terrible internet connection. Also something happened in Brighton, and then something else, but none of that was of any significance.
Greenwood continued to buzz around pleasantly, but even his youthful exuberance couldn’t get the game going. United drifted towards half-time, with the air of a team fully intending to keep on drifting: out the other side, through the summer, on into the haze of the future. David de Gea made a nice save.
At half-time, your correspondent looked up Kohler, United’s shirt-sleeve sponsor. They sell expensive toilets. Which frankly feels a bit obvious. Work harder, the Universe.
Anthony Martial on! Phil Jones off! A pleasing change in both directions. Big Scotty McTee went back to the defence, and United moved to a 4-2-4. Your correspondent would like to tell you that this led to an explosion of attacking football straight from the off, but even if it had, we wouldn’t know. Our stream slipped this mortal coil, and left us staring blankly at nothingness.
So you can probably blame us for the second Cardiff goal: no sooner did we have pictures back, then United soiled themselves again. No controversy this time, unless you think United’s defence is somehow in contravention of decency laws. McTominay got turned on the edge of the box, and Dalot ended up trying to cover two, and so covering neither. Chris Smalling was somewhere nearby.
Things continued to happen, though not in any pattern or order or structure. Pogba got a yellow card for turning a man around quickly. Martial kicked the ball very hard straight at the goalkeeper. Riyad Mahrez scored for City. United appealed for a handball. Greenwood missed from a couple of yards. Angel Gomes got another late season runaround. But all in vain, in vain.
The final whistle was a mercy; the final score no more than a limp, listless United deserved. Solskjaer got the permanent job on the crest of a wave of post-Mourinho fervour, but he will go into his first summer, then his first full season, with none of that energy behind him. If Solskjaer wanted this to stand as a statement of intent, it ended up looking like a cry for help. Or at least, a cry for a good long rest.
United finish their season in sixth place: seven points clear of Wolves in seventh place, five points from Spurs in fourth, and a staggering 32 points behind the champions. At least Antonio Valencia got a nice clap near the end. And it was sunny.