Manchester United were fortunate to leave the Wanda Metropolitano with a new hero in Anthony Elanga and more than a sliver of hope going into the second leg after a fidgety first-half and a frenetic second that ended in a 1-1 draw against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
The performance was up there with the 1-0 loss to Wolves as one of United’s most dour displays since Ralf Rangnick’s arrival as interim. United ultimately got through on fight and will, less so on any cohesion.
The pre-match talk was dominated by Victor Lindelof’s inclusion and position in the line-up. Rangnick confirmed in the pre-match interview that Lindelof’s ability to switch between the right centre-back and right-back role had a part to play in his inclusion. Notable absentees included the improved Diogo Dalot and Scott McTominay, who was out due to an illness.
Atletico Madrid lined up in a 3-5-2 with Joao Felix and Angel Correa getting the nod ahead of superstars Luis Suarez and Antione Griezmann.
United had the nerviest of starts, which was to be a theme for the entire first half. Harry Maguire could’ve done better with a headed clearance that went out for a corner in the second min. Bruno Fernandes was getting dispossessed easily with his first touches of the game. David De Gea, antsy as ever with his feet, kicked the ball into the stands when he could’ve shown some calmness.
A minute later, Atletico scored the first goal of the game. Joao Felix met an inch-perfect cross from Renan Lodi with an exquisite diving header. Seven minutes in, Atletico had got what they wanted; a lead to defend.
It was unclear if United were rattled by the atmosphere, the occasion, the opposition or all of them cause Atleti dropped off immediately but United were unusually timid on the ball and off it. There wasn’t a single player bar Victor Lindelof who showed any composure. The biggest disappoints were the two playmakers, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Atleti targeted the two and should’ve doubled their lead at the end of the half.
Lodi once again put in a raking delivery but his opposing wing-back Šime Vrsaljko could not find the right contact, hitting the crossbar. Half-time couldn’t come any sooner for the Reds. The players were like deers caught in the headlights all half.
There was a greater effort to force things in the second half but still no organization. Atletico had tailed off but United were finding it far easier to enter their half now. However, some dismal decision making from Marcus Rashford and abject execution from Bruno Fernandes left Atleti with little to worry about.
Subs had to be made and were made. Nemanja Matic came on for Paul Pogba. Alex Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka had to come in for Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof, who were on yellows in a game that was getting feistier by the minute. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho followed, making way for Anthony Elanga and Jesse Lingard.
United huffed and puffed before drawing the score in the 80th minute. Fernandes once again proved why he’s the most decisive player in the side, playing Elanga through after Atletico had committed their backline a bit higher. Elanga’s scuffed finish seemed to have wrong-footed the out-of-form Jan Oblak. The Swede’s song could be heard from the television screens. A star was born.
Atletico had one big chance before full-time when Antoine Griezmann found the crossbar. United chased for the winner with Jesse Lingard coming close with an ultimately tame effort. It felt like a win for the Reds, who were comfortably second-best on the day.
Ralf Rangnick will have to make some big decisions soon and for the future. No game would’ve been as revealing as this one. He also has to have a look at himself cause he surely couldn’t have instructed the players to play so poorly.
United’s run in the coming month doesn’t get any easier.