Manchester United find life in Italy

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 7, 2018

“Juventus is not a crucial match for us. I think, independent of the result, our next matches against Young Boys and Valencia are the matches that are going to define the qualification.”

Jose Mourinho was technically correct with his pre-match remarks, Manchester United’s path to the knockout stages might have rested on results in other games. Still, given the chastening defeat his team suffered in the reverse fixture, when Juventus cantered to a 1-0 victory which flattered their hosts, the club’s fans might have wanted to hear something more Churchillian. Forgetting the specific mechanics of Group F, this is a side and a fanbase in need of restoration, who want to feel good about themselves on this stage again.

From its early moments, this seemed like a night when that might happen. Romelu Lukaku is currently unavailable to Mourinho and, irrespective of what the Belgian’s strengths might be, United certainly look busier without him. Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard may have finished the first-half in Turin without registering a shot on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal, but they provided a hint of chemistry – a suggestion that, if Juventus over-committed, they could themselves be dangerous. Small positives, sure, but a threat which didn’t exist at Old Trafford and which nobody expected them to carry this evening.

Encouragingly, they reached the break having conceded just a single chance of note, Sami Khedira scuffing off the post and wide from an excellent position. Those United supporters may have wanted to see more thrust from their side and might still be pining after something more proactive, but here at least their players looked like they belonged. Quite unlike the one-sided, processional affair which preceded it, during which the dynamic was very different, this was a heavyweight European clash. Small margins, few chances, two capable teams.

There were alarms and further sign of the issues which have dogged United all season. The Khedira chance before half-time spoke to the uncured dysfunction in the visiting defence, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof conspiring to leave the German international completely alone on the penalty spot. After the restart, Paulo Dybala was able to spin away from a sluggish Nemanja Matic and lash a curling shot against De Gea’s crossbar.

There would be a proper punch to the gut, though. United successfully spent much of the night shutting down all avenues into their penalty box, but were powerless to stop Cristiano Ronaldo putting them behind. Leonardo Bonucci dropped a long-ball between De Gea and Lindelof, perfectly into the stride of Ronaldo, and the net inevitably bulged.

For a while, it seemed as if United’s knees would buckle. Soon after, Miralem Pjanic sidefooted wide when well placed and then, with United’s defence dazzled by another Ronaldo run, Juan Cuadrado spooned over instead of scoring. Black and white shirts were knifing up and down the field and, briefly, a second seemed only a matter of time. But Mourinho’s side rebalanced. At their worst, they can look like a team with only a sinlge gameplan, but here they responded with fresh ideas and retrieved more than they could ever have imagined getting from the night. First, Juan Mata clipped a free-kick up over the wall and into Szczescny’s top-corner. Then, minutes later, the former Arsenal goalkeeper fumbled a simple catch under pressure from Smalling and Pogba and the ball ricocheted off Alex Sandro and into the net. Two dead balls, yes, but from positions on the field that United had earned and held.

The Allianz Arena caught its breath and held it in silence. The Juve players were too winded to recover and United held onto to their most impressive result of the season with minimal fuss. Late on, Rashford might even have added a third, breaking away but failing to beat Szczesny one-on-one. It was stunning and shocking, but somehow still deserved. A reward for digging in, perhaps, or points earned by playing as a club of this standing should in a game of this profile.

At full-time, Mourinho cupped his ear to the crowd. An unnecessary gesture and one which diverted attention away from his deserving players. But the restorative value of the victory remained undiluted: Manchester United knocking over a member of the European elite? That sounds like a story from decades ago. But it’s good to hear again. United and their wounded pride needed this. They have become the first side to inflict a home European defeat on Juventus in nine years and, given the poverty of their season to this point, it’s a result to be cherished.

Mourinho began the week by insisting that this game didn’t matter. He’ll spend the flight back to England reflecting that it might be the most critical result he’s achieved in nearly three years. Whatever the truth, his players will carry a little more ego into the derby at the weekend, and the supporters will take a little more belief. This was a strike against their inferiority, a performance full of spirit and nerve. Mourinho’s United, that faceless, dull, lifeless entity, finally have some character.

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