Manchester United’s return to the Champions League did not turn out to be the night to remember they had hoped for, as they relinquished a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 against PSV Eindhoven, while Luke Shaw suffered an horrendous injury.
After a season-long absence from European football’s elite competition, United took the lead in the first half and were in control for large spells of the game but only have themselves to blame for returning from Holland empty handed.
Here’s five talking points from Tuesday night.
1) Shaw’s season could be over
Disappointing as the result was, the scoreline was merely an afterthought considering the terrible injury suffered by Luke Shaw.
The 20-year-old, arguably United’s best player of the season so far, was stretched off with a double-leg fracture less than 20 minutes into the game after a reckless challenge from Hector Moreno.
It is a bitterly disappointing blow for Shaw, who had looked a complete different player from the one who had struggled throughout his first season at United.
With the England left-back likely to be out for a lengthy spell, perhaps even for the remainder of the season, Louis Van Gaal will have to reshuffle his back four, with Daley Blind the favourite to replace Shaw at left-back.
Shaw’s absence is going to be a major setback for United but the debate on how they’ll cope without him will have to wait, for his recovery is by far the priority at the moment.
2) Mata fails his audition
For a player who so often is played out position, it was disappointing to see Juan Mata squander the opportunity to impress when handed the chance to play in his favourite role.
Against PSV, with Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin both on the bench, the Spaniard man was given a rare start at number 10, as Van Gaal opted to play Ander Herrera alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger.
However, the former Chelsea man failed his audition spectacularly, looking lethargic and confused in possession and lacking the incisive edge United fans have come to expect of him. Footballers, Mata included, are obviously entitled to enduring a bad night at the office, but the way he missed a golden chance to draw United level spoke of a player short of confidence or trying to hard to impress his manager.
3) Martial impresses
On a night that promised so much and delivered so little, Anthony Martial was a beacon of light for United.
Having marked his debut with a brilliant solo goal against Liverpool on Saturday, the young Frenchman was handed his first start as United returned to the Champions League and he did not disappoint.
The 19-year-old held up play brilliantly and showed sign of developing a promising partnership with Memphis Depay, all while displaying a maturity beyond his age.
Martial is by no means the finished article and could soon find himself on the bench once Wayne Rooney returns to the starting XI, but the early signs show the Frenchman might not, after all, be the waste of money the media have been desperate to portray him as.
4) Van Gaal’s subs are puzzling
For all the criticism aimed at United this season, they were in control of the game last night and it is difficult to explain how they failed to return from Holland with at least a point.
United started brightly, recovered from the shock of Shaw’s injury brilliantly by taking the lead through a wonderful Memphis Depay finish, only to crumble and concede two largely avoidable goals either side of halftime.
If PSV’s two goals spoke volume for the challenges facing United’s back four now that Daley Blind will be deployed as left-back to accommodate Marcos Rojo alongside Chris Smalling, the last 20 minutes showed all the shortcomings of Van Gaal’s plan B.
Without a recognised striker or even an attacking midfielder on the bench, the United manager was forced to bring on Marouane Fellaini, but the Belgian’s introduction only served to disrupt United’s attacks as Van Gaal’s men seemed to run out of ideas.
Fellaini has proved to be a good impact player but, on occasions such as Tuesday night, a player capable of stretches defences like James Wilson, who was not even on the bench, would be a better option when chasing the game.
5) How will United cope on two fronts?
While Luke Shaw’s injury is going to have serious and protracted repercussions on United’s season, their defeat against PSV isn’t a good enough reason to press the panic button just yet.
Of course, as Van Gaal himself admitted before the game, a draw or a win would have been a much better outcome but, despite the result, United should still fancy their chances to reach the knockout stages.
PSV, Wolfsburg and CSKA should not be underestimated but United, for all their travails, show signs of a team slowly coming together and they will back themselves to turn things around in the group, provided they win their home games.
However, it will be harder to juggle European football and domestic duties. United travel to Southampton on Sunday, while they host Wolfsburg before traveling to the Emirates and their journey to Moscow is sandwiched in between a trip to Everton and the first derby of the season.
The next two months will be a huge test for Van Gaal and his side.
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