In an open night of football, Manchester United and Club Brugge played out a 1-1 draw.
The Red Devils played a rotated side and were largely outplayed by their Belgian hosts but come away with a positive result. What did we learn?
1. Martial finding his killer instinct
Anthony Martial can too often look as though he is simply going through the motions. In fact lately that’s how he has looked, a frustrating figure incapable of lifting his game to deliver when United most need him to. But he did score a huge goal away to Chelsea at the weekend, and today he pulled United out of a deep, dark hole.
The Red Devils had been awful for the first 36 minutes of the game until young Maxim De Cuyper went long with his throw-in to the veteran Brandon Mechele; and the defender foolishly allowed the ball to roll across his body. This was all the encouragement the Frenchman needed and he pounced. Martial pressed ferociously, stealing the ball back before accelerating powerfully into the gap behind the defence. Two touches, the second spectacularly moving the ball across the path of Mechele, put Martial into the box and he finished calmly.
That goal was enormous. It pulled United level when they never looked capable of creating anything and gave them the advantage in the tie. The way he pressed, pushed on and finished coolly was an example of his growing killer instinct. An Anthony Martial that is tuned in and playing with a ruthless streak is a deadly prospect for opponents of all levels.
2. Dennis is United’s kryptonite
Brugge came into this game missing their best attacker, Krepin Diatta. However they did have the man who bagged a brace at the Santiago Bernabeu as Brugge improbably drew there earlier on in the season: Emmanuel Bonaventure Dennis.
The 22-year-old Nigerian was absolutely sensational against Manchester United and that’s because he represents the exact type of striker that United hate playing against. Dennis is fast, direct and audacious. His goal was a delightful bit of improvisation, lifting the ball over Sergio Romero was some distance out.
And even before that he had been dancing through the United defence, delightfully nutmegging Harry Maguire on his way to creating a chance for his side. Then after it he continued to Brugge’s best player absolutely torturing Maguire, at one point creating a golden chance that his team-mate inexplicably blazed wide.
3. Fred and Fernandes show their importance
For 80 minutes, Manchester United were objectively quite bad. They had brought Fred on after 71 minutes but the Brazilian couldn’t turn things around himself. Then Bruno Fernandes came on, and suddenly Manchester United looked like a football team again.
Through the combination of Fred and Fernandes, United’s midfield began functioning. Passes were exchanged at speed, the ball was pushed into key areas and Brugge couldn’t handle them. Fernandes has the second-most goals so far in this season’s Europa League and this game showed just how much influence is wields already for United. As the tournament wears on, his partnership with Fred could be the difference between victory and defeat.
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4. Sergio Romero fails for the first time
One of the great debates regarding Manchester United this season has been wondering why David de Gea has continued to start ahead of Sergio Romero even though the Spaniard’s form has been abjectly poor. Romero, who is always so reliable when called upon, has been the man that many United fans wanted to see.
Well today against Brugge, Romero showed perhaps the main reason why he hasn’t ousted De Gea. Brugge’s first goal was a bit of quick thinking by Simon Mignolet and Emmanuel Dennis, but it was only possible because Romero came racing off his line to try before stopping and leaving himself in no man’s land.
That kind of rash, impetuous nonsense is the kind of thing Romero used to be known for before his impeccable run for Argentina at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. And they have reared their head for the first time during Romero’s spell as a Manchester United player.
5. United stumble to Mission Accomplished
Surprisingly, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made several changes after United’s win over Chelsea. Obviously Solskjaer was trying to keep some key men fresh or at least avoid overburdening his squad. But the problem is United’s squad is not that great, and so once you get past the starting XI things begin to look a bit bleak.
And that was born out in their performance, as United stumbled their way around Brugge looking kind of useless. Brugge were the better side and United’s equaliser came out of nowhere. The Red Devils had some chances to pick up a win late on but didn’t take them, but at no point in the game did they feel like they were in control.
Ultimately, however, the game did finish 1-1. United will now travel back to Old Trafford for the second leg with a massive score draw away from home. That away goal is a huge thing for The Red Devils as it gives them a true edge in the tie. Although they will want to play much better at Old Trafford and not have to rely on an away goal to save them.