Manchester United were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stages after a disappointing 3-2 defeat away at RB Leipzig on Tuesday. Having conceded twice early in the match, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side found themselves three down with 20 minutes remaining. Late goals from Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba revived hopes of an unlikely comeback, but ultimately proved nothing more than consolation prizes.
United made a terrible start to the game, and went behind in just the second minute of play. Outnumbered in the centre of the pitch, United’s defence compensated by squeezing narrow, leaving Leipzig wing-back Angeliño in acres of space out on the left. The Spaniard was picked out by a deep Marcel Sabitzer cross, and drilled a magnificent half-volley straight inside David de Gea’s far post.
The visitors might have drawn level within seven minutes, when a quick counter-attack sent Mason Greenwood scampering down the right, though he fired tamely at goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi after cutting onto his favoured left foot. It proved a costly miss.
Within five minutes, United were two down and looked all but out of the Champions League. Undone in a similar fashion to the first goal, a narrow United defence failed to defend two cross-field switches, the latter a chipped cross which right wing-back Amadou Haidara lashed home in style.
Two goals, one for each of Leipzig’s wing-backs: there were clearly gaping tactical flaws in Solskjær’s gameplan. For the rest of the half, United offered almost nothing in attack, and were lucky not to go three down. Leipzig defender Willi Orbán thought he’d wrapped things up with a tap-in on the goalline, though his strike was ruled out for offside after a VAR review.
At half time, Solskjær rectified the error he’d made in his initial team selection. Alex Telles was withdrawn for Donny van der Beek, as United moved from a back three to a more familiar defensive four. The extra man in midfield stopped Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matić drowning in a sea of white shirts, and resolved the problem that had afforded Angeliño and Haidara so much space in the first half.
The game immediately had more balance, but with no goal forthcoming as the clock ticked past the hour, Brandon Williams and Paul Pogba were thrown on in place of Luke Shaw and Matić. Bruno Fernandes threatened with a typically dangerous long-range effort, though it was well saved by a diving Gulácsi. He went even closer with a dipping free-kick from the edge of the box two minutes later, though it came back off the underside of the crossbar.
Leipzig had offered almost nothing in the second half, but seemed to have killed the game off with a third just seconds later. It was the result of more lax United defending, coming as Harry Maguire inexplicably left a deflected Angeliño cross, allowing substitute Justin Kluivert to nip in and chip past De Gea from close range.
The error was made all the more frustrating by the fact United were soon gifted a goal by the referee. Greenwood went down in the penalty area under pressure from Ibrahima Konaté; the referee pointed to the penalty spot; and Fernandes stepped up to roll the ball past the keeper for 3-1.
Within three minutes, the impossible appeared within grasp. Pogba leapt to meet a Fernandes corner hung towards the back post, and his powerful header came off Maguire and then Konaté on its way past the keeper. Despite Leipzig appeals for handball, it was allowed to stand after VAR review, and United needed only one more to complete the unlikeliest of comebacks.
Unfortunately, the third proved beyond United, whose elimination from the Champions League is now confirmed. Perhaps even worse, it means the Reds will once again be playing Thursday night Europa League football in the new year.